Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Honor General Petraeus for leading Iraq out of its darkest moment

General David Petraeus gives the reins in Iraq to Gen. Odierno with a huge success under his belt. Few people expected success from his command and new approach - "the Surge." But he - they - pulled it off. Of course Senator McCain was an early believer in and seller of the surge strategy Times Online : When he assumed overall command in Iraq in February 2007, General David Petraeus described the situation as “hard but not hopeless”. It is important to remember that, in that grim time, his assessment ranked as cock-eyed optimism - not least in Washington. Two battles were raging in Iraq, with both American and Iraqi casualties horrifyingly high and shooting upwards. Lethal attacks by insurgents or al-Qaeda on coalition forces averaged 180 a day, while Iraq's Sunni and Shia communities were simultaneously tearing at each other's guts. In parts though not all of Iraq, death squads roamed at will, kidnapping, torturing and killing in an orgy of sectarian violence that sundered neighbourhoods and had families cowering in terror behind barred doors. On General Petraeus's first day touring Baghdad, 55 corpses lay decomposing in the streets, victims of sectarian killings. The national daily average of civilian deaths had topped 80. His mission was to implement the new strategy announced by George Bush the previous month: a surge deployment of five extra army brigades and three Marine units, aimed at reducing violence enough to create space for the economy to revive and political reconciliation to begin. That mission, tough enough in itself, was all but friendless back home in Washington. President Bush had ordered the surge in the teeth of opposition from the Pentagon's top generals and the State Department. In Congress, not only Barack Obama (more troops would worsen the violence) but Republicans such as Senator Chuck Hagel (it would be “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam”) were loudly against, and the bipartisan Iraq Study Group had echoed public opinion in arguing for a strategy of “managed failure” to camouflage a speedy US withdrawal - with Senator Joe Biden further arguing that partition was Iraq's inevitable and even desirable fate. John McCain's backing for the surge looked like sinking his bid for the presidency. This week General Petraeus handed over command to his stalwart deputy, General Ray Odierno, with thanks to American and the much improved Iraqi forces for turning hard but not hopeless into “hard but hopeful” and this time was hailed for his modesty. Incontrovertibly, Iraq on his watch has pulled back from the precipice. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is not finished, as constant suicide bomb attacks attest; but it is no longer an existential menace. Its losses since April are reported on jihadist networks to be double its casualties in the four years from 2003 to 2007 - not least because of the Sunni “Awakening” against the nihilistic brutality of al-Qaeda's methods. Anbar, the “unwinnable” western province that was the heartland of the bloody Sunni insurgency and also of al-Qaeda in Iraq, is in consequence now so peaceable that on September 1 it became the 11th of Iraq's 18 provinces to be handed from American to Iraqi military control. In the south, Basra has been reclaimed from Shia militia rule (despite rather than because of Britain's inadequate and in part shameful contribution), as, for now, has the militantly Shia Sadr City area of Baghdad. Countrywide, daily attacks have fallen from around 180 last year to around 25, and there has been a drop of almost 80 per cent in civilian deaths. Street markets, even the odd swimming pool, have reopened. Despite still-dysfunctional electricity and water supplies and inefficient and corrupt public administration, the economy is picking up. The surge has ended: the additional units are out of Iraq. The gains are holding, with monthly US military fatalities dramatically down, from a peak of 126 as the surge got under way to 18 last month. They are holding because the surge involved much more than extra US troops. Militarily, it underpinned the switch, masterminded by General Petraeus, to a counter-insurgency strategy that moved forces out of barracks into Iraqi streets with a mission to protect the Iraqi population and earn their trust. Politically, the surge sent the all-important message that the US was not, after all, going to cut its losses and run.

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