Thursday, September 18, 2008

London editor praises Petraeus; cautions U. S.

Excerpts from the Times of London’s associate editor Rosemary Righter’s column today, followed by my very brief remarks below the star line.

Righter notes - - -

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.

That altered the dynamics in Iraq. Factions that had been jostling for power ahead of America's discomfited departure realised that the US would stay around until it could in some confidence leave Iraq to manage its own destiny. The Sunni switch to alliance with US forces was the most dramatic consequence, a turnaround that General Petraeus shrewdly encouraged and financed. Political conciliation is not yet a fact but at least it is talked about.

General Petraeus, however, no more does modesty than he does cock-eyed optimism. If he says that progress is fragile and still reversible, he must be taken seriously.

It would be as big an error to declare the surge a “success”, as Mr Obama has abruptly found it expedient to do, as it was to oppose it in the first place, if doing so is a prelude to cutting American troop strengths in Iraq rapidly and “moving on”. This is perilously close to being the new Washington consensus. (emphasis added)

It is not the Iraqi consensus. As Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi Foreign Minister, said this week: “What we do next is critical to the viability and endurance of any hard-won gains we have made.” Big tests are imminent.

Nouri al-Maliki's Shia-dominated Government takes over paying the wages of the Sunni “Sons of Iraq” from the US next month. It could make the huge mistake of refusing to incorporate more than a fifth of these fighters into Iraq's security forces: they could return to insurgency. It is still foot-dragging on vital laws on elections and sharing oil revenues throughout Iraq.

Mr Zebari did not say so, but until Iraq's factions get serious about sharing power a relapse into violence is a real risk; and most Iraqis know, even if they resent the American presence, that it is their insurance cover. Politically as well as militarily, the US holds the ring.

There is, Mr Zebari insists, no fixed timetable for US troop withdrawal: decisions must be “conditions-led on the ground” to avoid “a vacuum of instability”. Nor must there be. There are no short cuts to stabilising Iraq. And that is not what Americans want to hear.

Righter’s entire column’s here.



I’m traveling in a few minutes. I’ll be shutting down blogging until early this evening.

However, Righter’s column is outstanding so I wanted to call it to your attention ASAP.

I’ll say more tonight.

I’ll be interested to hear what you think.

Hat tip: