Signs of Progress in the Iraq “Surge”?/ Afghanistan Battle Looms

Mar 8, 2007 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

March 8, 2007
Number 03/07 #03

While most of the additional US troops promised as part of the Iraq “surge” announced by US President Bush have yet to arrive, the change in strategy which is also part of the plan has already begun to be implemented over recent weeks.  US and Iraqi troops are starting to operate neighbourhood to neighbourhood in Baghdad and attempt to restore security. While the bombings and other violence have of course not ceased, this Update contains two reports from Iraqis indicating that there may be progress toward a greater feeling of security in at least some neighbourhoods.

First up, Baghdad-based bloggers Mohammed and Omar Fadhil report that even before operations began, many insurgents fled; that they see signs of optimism in the populace; and that market-places are busier and stores re-opening. They also report that violence is definitely down and military efforts are killing hundreds of insurgents and terrorists and seizing many caches of weapons. For their cautiously optimistic account of a hopeful atmosphere in Baghdad, CLICK HERE.

Our next item comes from Iraqpundit, an anonymous Iraqi blogger living in exile who reports that his relatives are experiencing something similar to what the Fadhil brothers report – his immediate family have returned to their home which they fled, and his aunt seems full of hope, and says her neighbours feel the same. The aunt also reports, he says, that daily life on the streets of her neighbourhood is returning to something resembling normality. Finally, the author expresses concern that elements of the international media may be pre-disposed to look for evidence of failure and be unable to see progress when it occurs. For his full discussion, CLICK HERE.

Finally, this Update includes a piece on the preparations for an expected major battle with Taliban forces in Afghanistan in the upcoming northern spring. Former US  defence official and author Bing West says that there is an Afghan “surge” as well as an Iraqi one, and that this involves a change in Western strategy just as in Iraq. He discusses what this entails and surveys the overall military situation in the country, HERE.

Notes From Baghdad

Open liquor stores and other signs of the surge’s success.


Wall Street Journal, Wednesday, March 7, 2007

BAGHDAD–The new strategy to secure Baghdad has been dubbed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as “Operation Imposing the Law.” After weeks of waiting and anxiety it is finally under way, and early signs are encouraging.

The government information campaign and the news about thousands of additional troops coming had a positive impact even before the operation started. Commanders and lieutenants of various militant groups abandoned their positions in Baghdad and in some cases fled the country. Diyala province, to the east of Baghdad, was the destination for many Sunni extremists, while Shiite militiamen went to Babil and Diwaniya in the south. Some higher-ranking members of Shiite and Sunni militant groups fled to Iran and Syria respectively. This migration motivated the government to announce supporting security measures in five provinces around Baghdad, to make sure that fleeing bad guys do not regroup in other cities.

This indicates that both the addition of more troops and the tough words of Prime Minister Maliki are doing the job of intimidating the militants. The extremists understand only the language of power, and any reluctance or softness on the part of the Iraqi or U.S. government would only embolden them. In this way the clearly voiced commitment of President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki was exactly the type of strong message that needed to be sent.

One difference between this and earlier–failed–attempts to secure Baghdad is the willingness of the Iraqi and U.S. governments to commit enough resources for enough time to make it work. Another important point is the insistence of the Iraqi government that political factions not interfere with the progress of military action. The commanders and the prime minister have made it clear that no one will be above the law, and that even places of worship and the offices of politicians will be subject to searches and raids if evidence of involvement in violence is found.

The Iraqi commanders are also trying to give the operation a national stamp by including troops from across the country–even from Kurdistan and far provinces like Basra, where politicians and officers have been long opposed to being involved in Baghdad. Yet another aspect that makes “Imposing Law” unique is its ascending intensity. Unlike other operations that always started from a peak and soon lost momentum, this plan is becoming stricter and gaining momentum by the day as more troops pour into the city, allowing for a better implementation of the “clear and hold” strategy. People here always want the “hold” part to materialize, and feel safe when they go out and find the Army and police maintaining their posts–the bad guys can’t intimidate as long as the troops are staying.

The Iraqi people themselves are playing their role in the plan. Recent figures from U.S. officers in Baghdad show that the joint forces have been receiving an average of 250 security tips from civilians since the beginning of the operation, about twice previous figures. With help from a government-appointed committee, people in some Baghdad neighborhoods are returning occupied mosques to their original keepers and worshippers, and holding joint prayers between the two sects in mixed neighborhoods.

So after only a couple weeks we can feel, despite the continuing violence, that much has been accomplished. Many Baghdadis feel hopeful again about the future, and the fear of civil war is slowly being replaced by optimism that peace might one day return to this city. This change in mood is something huge by itself.

The brightest image of the past two weeks was the scene of displaced families returning home; more than a thousand families are back to their homes under the protection of the Army and police. This figure invites hope that Baghdad will restore its social, ethnic and religious mosaic.

Marketplaces are seeing more activity and stores that were long shuttered are reopening–including even some liquor stores that came under vicious attacks in the past. This is a sign that extremists no longer can intimidate people and hold the city hostage. All of this gives the sense that law is being imposed.

Checkpoints are not seen as scary threats to the innocent. They look more professional and impartial as they include members of the police, army, multinational forces and even traffic cops with laptops verifying registration papers. We’ve lost the fear that checkpoints might be traps set by death squads; they search everyone, even official convoys and ambulances.

We feel safer about moving in the city now, and politicians who used to hide behind the walls of the Green Zone are venturing out. Watching Mr. Maliki walking on Palestine Street in central Baghdad gave a positive impression that the state, and not the gangs, owns the streets.

It is true that not all of Baghdad has seen the same amount of progress, but we realize that patience is necessary. People do not complain about delays at checkpoints but instead say they’d like to see stricter inspection.

Military-wise, the results are not humble either; hundreds of militants have been killed, more hundreds arrested, and dozens of weapons caches discovered and destroyed. The frequency of attacks has declined drastically, and the terrifying scene of bullet-riddled bodies has become a rarer incident.

Our people want to see this effort succeed. We know it’s not going to be an easy fight. Rescuing all of Baghdad’s districts from the grip of militants and terrorists will require sacrifice and hard work. We hope the troops and the governments in Baghdad and America do not lose their resolve.

Mohammed and Omar Fadhil write a blog, IraqTheModel.com, from Baghdad.


“A few signs of progress”

Iraqpundit, Monday, March 05, 2007

How is the security crackdown going? “After three weeks,” the NYT wrote in a front-page piece on Sunday, “there are a few signs of progress.” I’m glad to see the Times say even that much, though the fact is that the Times story wasn’t about the crackdown; it was about the estrangement and distrust that have developed between Baghdad’s Shiite and Sunni communities, a major problem that the security sweep is trying to address. The more progress made in the sweep, however, the less valid the story’s hook of ongoing community distrust. Thus, among the NYT’s “few signs of progress” is this carefully worded sentence: “In some areas closely patrolled by American troops, a few of the families that fled the violence are said to be returning.”

Am I hypersensitive, or is that a minimizing, almost self-nullifying way to put it? Of course, in the NYT’s world, even seemingly welcome news from Iraq isn’t really good news at all. When the revolting Moktada Al Sadr went into hiding, for example, the Times saw it as an opportunity for somebody even worse to come along. When Iraqi and U.S. troops recently wiped out an army of fringe Shiite cultists, the Times saw the battle as a case of miscalculation by the Iraqi forces, because they called in U.S. backup. The whole of the cultist army was captured or killed, but what mattered to the NYT was that the Iraqi forces had supposedly miscalculated!

Now we have “a few families” who “are said to be returning” to “some areas closely patrolled by American troops.” Yeah, well, one of those families is mine; I wrote about it here. I took pains in that post not to inflate the significance of my family’s return to the home they had been forced to leave. Theirs was one Baghdadi household, I acknowledged, and I expressed the hope that the example would soon be multiplied many times over. But while I don’t want to exaggerate the significance of their homecoming, I don’t want to see it trivialized into something the Times treats as suspect hearsay, either.

Maybe this is a good time to pass along more such news, not to “refute” the Times’ portrait of Baghdad as a city of fear (it’s certainly that), but to demonstrate the chasm between the Times’ approach to Iraq now, and Iraqis’ view of our own troubled country.

I spoke to an aunt in Baghdad the other day. She and her husband live in a mixed area that locals call “The Judges’ Neighborhood.” They and their neighbors have seen a lot of terrible violence, and have experienced far more than their share of fear.

I’ve talked with this aunt frequently, and while she’s always tried to sound as if she and her husband will be just fine, this recent call was different. This time, she had palpable optimism in her voice. For the first time in a long, long time, she told me, she and the people around her feel that things might turn out okay after all.

Soldiers have been going door to door, she said, trying to locate those who had been chased away from their homes, to help them return. People are coming back to the neighborhood; daily life on the streets in her quarter is beginning to assume an air of routine. Her friends and neighbors are increasingly hopeful that things are taking a meaningful turn for the better. For them at least, the latest security crackdown is showing signs of success.

Are my aunt and her neighbors kidding themselves out of desperation? That’s possible; it’s hard to live without hope, and people can be creative at manufacturing reasons to be optimistic. (Though the truth is that Iraqis are not, as a rule, an optimistic group, and are inclined by cultural habit to see things darkly. But that’s another story.) It’s true that the murderers in Iraq are still at work. On the other hand, I’m far more inclined to take seriously a picture of Baghdad that comes from a life-long Baghdadi than one coming from a Westerner who has parachuted into town for a while, and who doesn’t speak the language.

Yet Iraqis who desperately want to lead normal lives are not the only ones with an incentive to interpret events in their own interests. If one listens to the usual suspects among certain journalists, academics, and politicians, the ongoing crackdown is futile and doomed to fail. But that’s a conclusion that many of these figures reached even before the security sweep began. In other words, some of the crackdown’s critics have created incentives, professional and personal, to perceive Iraqi and American failure. People can be creative at manufacturing reasons to be pessimistic, too.

I don’t know whether the Baghdad crackdown will ultimately succeed, but I know that so far it has benefited at least a pair of communities where my own relatives live. I hope that greater security and a sense of peaceful routine soon spreads throughout Baghdad, and allows the city’s many communities – there are more than two – to resume living in trust. And I’ll let those who see things differently speak for themselves.


Securing Afghanistan

The Americans keep trying


National Review, March 19, 2007 edition

Kabul- No sooner did President Bush decide that Iraq required a troop surge than dire warnings about Afghanistan popped up in the news. After visiting here in January, defense secretary Robert Gates promptly extended the tours of 3,200 U.S. combat soldiers. He also requested that Congress provide $8.6 billion over the next two years for Afghan security forces, and $2 billion for reconstruction. This followed repeated warnings from American military officers that both the U.S. and NATO-Europe were falling short in force levels and financial aid.

Gates flew to Brussels and urged the European nations to make good on their pledges of money and troops. Germany and France predictably demurred, but President Bush chided them, and in so doing emphasized the redoubled U.S. effort: “When our commanders on the ground say to our respective countries we need additional help, our NATO countries must provide it. . . I’ve ordered an increase in U.S. forces in Afghanistan.”

Is this Afghan surge meant to reinforce success or stave off defeat? That depends on how one defines success and failure. Violence and rebellion are endemic in this restive country with a weak government, yielding data as erratic as the weather.

Press accounts routinely stress indicators of a reconstituted Taliban. Suicide-bomb attacks increased from 18 in 2005 to 116 in 2006, while direct-fire attacks grew from three a day in 2005 to more than ten a day in 2006. Opium production is at record levels, while violence has forced the closure of many schools in southeastern Afghanistan.

Yet here in the north, the scene is strikingly different. The U.S. 82nd Airborne Division is deployed east of Kabul to cover the approaches from Pakistan, while U.S. Embedded Training Teams (ETTs) are advising 21 Afghan battalions. The ETTs praise the fighting spirit of these battalions, which respond to Taliban attacks with vigorous counterattacks. I am accompanying Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis (“Mad Dog” to his admiring grunts), the head of the Marine Central Command, and my conversations are primarily with Marine ETTs.

But it is the spirit of Afghan soldiers that is apparent in my visits to the 201st Corps of the Afghan Army and the Kabul Military Training Center. The Afghan battalions are cohesive, with 90 percent present for duty, a remarkably high figure. They are not without problems, of course. Over 70 percent of the soldiers are illiterate, and the officers scarcely know how to use a computer. The army rushes into fights, doesn’t plan, lacks a non-commissioned officer corps, bungles logistics, and fails to coordinate among units. But, given the army’s pluck and determination, a long-term advisory effort can overcome these defects (and would face little opposition from the Afghan people — poll after poll shows that they like and appreciate American soldiers).

Both Iraq and Afghanistan face insurgencies, but the differences are stark. In Afghanistan, uniformed soldiers and unarmed police browse the open-air bazaars; in Iraq, soldiers on leave and police wear civilian clothes and hide their identities. In Afghanistan, the Taliban train and mass across the border in Pakistani sanctuaries; in Iraq, Sunni insurgents and Shiite death squads live among local sympathizers. It’s true that, in the Kandahar-Helmand area some 250 miles south of Kabul, the Taliban pose as “protectors” (for a fee) of poppy-growing farmers. But for the most part they can’t count on popular support to conceal their presence.

Their tactics tend to be conventional. They move in bands that number between six and sixty, and mass more men for attacks. “The Taliban scatter when Afghan soldiers move in,” Lt. Col. Robert Manion, a U.S. adviser, says. “Near the border, they prefer to fight from the hills, not get trapped in a village.” That’s because they would be picked out and seized there, thanks to their distinctive accents, the willingness of village elders to betray them, and the disinclination of Afghan soldiers to read them their Miranda rights. The result is a military seesaw. The Taliban mass in Pakistan and strike along the border, but the deeper into Afghanistan they advance the more vulnerable they are to counterattack.

Most of the 20,000 American soldiers in combat units, plus 6,000 support and training troops, are in the north, where numerous mountain passes from Pakistan offer a short route to Kabul. In late 2001, the Taliban fled east after being routed. About 70 miles south of the fabled Khyber Pass, U.S. forces temporarily trapped them at Tora Bora. But the Central Command under Gen. Tommy Franks failed to block the passes, and bin Laden escaped with the core of his fighters. In the months thereafter, U.S. troops scoured the Afghan side of the border, and as months turned into years the effort morphed into a sustained defense against persistent Taliban probes.

In the south, NATO-Europe units — primarily British, Canadian, Dutch, and Romanian — are stationed around Kandahar. The Taliban spent 2006 focused on infiltrating that area. Kandahar was their tribal home ground; poppy farming in the region provided money; and European troops were less aggressive than the Americans.

Some combat was intense, including a major battle at Panjwayi. The Canadians have lost 44 of 2,500 soldiers, roughly comparable to fatalities in U.S. Marine battalions in Iraq, and a poll found that a majority of Canadians want their troops withdrawn. This reaction is emblematic of an underlying problem: To avoid casualties, many European countries have imposed unreasonable rules of engagement on their soldiers, forcing them to cede territory and initiative to the Taliban and go on defense. The overall pattern in Afghanistan is deterioration of military conditions in the south, where European troops predominate, and improvement in the U.S.-controlled north.

Why, then, the sudden infusion of American troops and money? There are reasons of both prudence and opportunity. Since summer, U.S. and NATO commanders have been seeking an increase in forces of about 15 percent. While Secretary Gates has taken steps to ensure that the U.S. fulfills this request, it is likely that NATO-Europe will neither add sufficient forces nor permit its commanders to respond vigorously to the Taliban’s expected spring offensive. The U.S. may have to compensate for this fecklessness — particularly that of Germany, Spain, and Italy — by redeploying troops to the south. Gates’s decision to increase American forces was thus prudent military planning.

He was also seizing a political opportunity, neatly summed up by British general David Richards, who until recently commanded the NATO force. “This is a good war,” Richards said. “This is a winnable war.” American politicians opposed to Iraq want to show that they are not soft on our enemies. The Taliban is a clear enemy; casualties in Afghanistan have been comparatively light; and the dollar cost of operations here is a fraction of what it is in Iraq. Knowing all this, Gates expects that politicians’ self-interest will bring them to back the “good” war.

Where this leads, though, is another question. In 2002, the Taliban retreated to a sanctuary across a porous border, and for the next five years the U.S. and NATO hooked and jabbed to keep them bottled up while an Afghan army was trained. Today there are but 36,000 Afghan soldiers in a country of 30 million, with a thousand-mile border along which the zealous enemy can attack. The Afghan army is pushing to train 70,000 troops by the end of 2008. I ask Maj. Gen. Mohammad Mangal, the commander of the 201st Afghan Corps, when U.S. forces will no longer be needed. He spells out the conditions: “We need good equipment and 70,000 soldiers. And we need honesty by Pakistan to stop the infiltration. It must not allow training bases outside our borders.”

The U.S. will provide the equipment, and the soldiers are being trained. The problem is that Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf lacks the internal political support to deprive al-Qaeda and the Taliban of their sanctuary. As long as this sanctuary cannot be eliminated, there are only two strategies for countering its threat.

The first is containment: wearing down the enemy year after year by counterpunching when it attacks at the end of each winter. The hope is that the Taliban, ever more discouraged and exhausted, will eventually disintegrate, despite the large number of Afghan refugees in Pakistan that provide a steady stream of foot soldiers. Building up a capable Afghan army will allow NATO and the U.S. to withdraw ground forces while continuing to provide air support. Any time the Taliban advance over Afghanistan’s open terrain in large numbers, they will be vulnerable to air attack.

For five years, NATO has pursued this containment strategy under the assumption that the Taliban’s ideology is repugnant to most Afghans. This approach acknowledged that the Taliban could make limited political inroads in the southeast among Pashto tribal villages and in poppy-growing regions, but assumed that the Taliban’s intolerance and tyranny would limit its popularity.

But NATO now appears concerned that the Taliban are gaining too much support. Hence containment will be supplemented with, or even replaced by, a second strategy: nation building (also known as counterinsurgency). The main military component of this strategy is to deploy NATO training teams — primarily American — with the local police in about 100 districts. (Advisers will also be embedded in 100 army battalions.) The police will root out Taliban proselytizers recruiting among the unemployed who are disillusioned by the lack of progress since the West swooped in five years ago. The expansion of the U.S. military mission will provide more security for the reconstruction teams that are struggling to modernize the country and introduce alternatives to its heroin-based economy. In theory, economic development will bring with it Western concepts of polity, compromise, equality, and similar ideals. The hope is that this will prevent the Taliban from putting down roots and creeping toward Kabul.

The most significant item in the Gates Plan for Afghanistan is thus not the additional combat forces, but rather the decision to more than double the number of American advisers and to secure funds for police training. Afghanistan currently has about 20,000 fully trained police and 30,000 more who are not qualified to use weapons. They are paid meager wages and scattered haphazardly through 120-odd districts. Yet a recent survey found that 90 percent were at their posts, despite scant supervision and weak linkage to the government in Kabul. They stay alive by accommodation with a local or intermittent Taliban presence, or by abandoning their posts when the Taliban advance.

The embedment plan is more “mission leap” than “mission creep,” and will involve great difficulties. The U.S. command does not put advisers anywhere without guaranteeing timely reinforcement. In the northeast, it is common for American special forces and advisers to share combat outposts with Afghan soldiers and, sometimes, police. This provides sufficient numbers for defense. In addition, American reaction forces mounted in helicopters are on call. Providing reinforcement to advisory teams in the southeast will require additional reaction forces, by arrangement either with NATO or with Afghan army units that lack the mobility for quick response.

Our forces have not done well training the Iraqi police — a project that has only recently become a semi-military mission — and techniques and tactics to create nationwide constabularies on the model of the Spanish gendarmerie have yet to be developed. Making command arrangements between the Afghan army and the Afghan police — which, under the plan, are to cooperate — will also be hard, given that they dislike and distrust each other.

Only a few years ago the Bush administration vigorously rejected the idea of involving the Pentagon in nation building, but that is just what getting in the local-police business will require. Afghanistan, with a 20 percent literacy rate among men and 7 percent among women, faces staggering obstacles to its development. The opium trade accounts for at least a quarter of GDP. Working at the local-police level will inevitably force American advisers to deal with payoffs to smugglers and poppy farmers, relations among tribes, judicial proceedings, and other fraught situations. And the size of the overall task is staggering. Last year, for instance, Canada’s Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team gave out medication, tools, school supplies, food, blankets, toys, carpets, and radios to 2,000 people living in remote villages, in addition to supplying 1,000 police with uniforms, winter coats, boots, belts, gloves, and flashlights. That barely scratched the surface.

While the decision to train police sends a strong signal of confidence in the Afghan fighting man, its execution will be an enormous challenge and a long-term burden. From the outset, America and NATO-Europe need to be very clear about how many soldiers and advisers, how much money, and how many years they are willing to devote to the new strategy. They also need to decide exactly how progress will be measured. Success will probably involve U.S. forces at the local level for a decade or more.

The “good war” is about to get a lot bigger. Whether it gets better, we will see.

Mr. West, a former Marine, was an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. He is the author of No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah and The Village: A Combined Action Platoon in Vietnam.


Palestinian Red Crescent workers from Al-Najjar Hospital in the city of Rafah, south of the Gaza Strip, on January 10, 2024 (Image: Shutterstock)

Hamas’ impossible casualty figures

Mar 28, 2024 | Update
455daec3 C2a8 8752 C215 B7bd062c6bbc

After the Israel-Hamas ceasefire for hostages deal

Nov 29, 2023 | Update
Screenshot of Hamas bodycam footage as terrorists approach an Israeli vehicle during the terror organisation's October 7, 2023 attack in southern Israel, released by the IDF and GPO (Screenshot)

Horror on Video / International Law and the Hamas War

Oct 31, 2023 | Update
Sderot, Israel. 7th Oct, 2023. Bodies of dead Israelis lie on the ground following the attacks of Hamas (Image: Ilia Yefimovich/dpa/Alamy Live News)

Israel’s Sept. 11, only worse

Oct 11, 2023 | Update
Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu (r) gets his long-awaited face-to-face meeting with US President Joe Biden in New York (Photo: Avi Ohayon, Israeli Government Press Office)

Netanyahu meets Biden, other world leaders, in New York

Sep 27, 2023 | Update
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who gave an address on Aug. 28 threatening the US and laying out the Iranian-led axis's new "unity of the arenas" doctrine. (Photo: Shutterstock, mohammad kassir)

US-Iran prisoner swap deal set to go through

Sep 12, 2023 | Update




Much of the Arab world knows Hamas ‘is the problem’: Colin Rubenstein on Sky News

Image: Shutterstock

Faith: Shavuot

Image: Shutterstock

Australia must never be a party to cynical, pro-Hamas lawfare

Image: X/Twitter

AIJAC expresses appreciation to PM, Leader of the Opposition, for bipartisan stance against extremism and antisemitism


“The reason we don’t get to a two-state outcome is the continuing extremism of the Palestinians”: Colin Rubenstein on Sky News


Much of the Arab world knows Hamas ‘is the problem’: Colin Rubenstein on Sky News

Image: Shutterstock

Faith: Shavuot

Image: Shutterstock

Australia must never be a party to cynical, pro-Hamas lawfare

Image: X/Twitter

AIJAC expresses appreciation to PM, Leader of the Opposition, for bipartisan stance against extremism and antisemitism


“The reason we don’t get to a two-state outcome is the continuing extremism of the Palestinians”: Colin Rubenstein on Sky News