Pol­i­tics Col­lide With Iraq Re­al­i­ties

Com­man­ders Seek Longer-Term Fo­cus

The Washington Post Sunday - - Front Page - By Thomas E. Ricks

There are two Iraq wars be­ing waged, ac­cord­ing to mil­i­tary of­fi­cers on the ground and de­fense ex­perts: the one fought in the streets of Bagh­dad, and the war as it is per­ceived in Wash­ing­ton.

Army Gen. David H. Pe­traeus, who took over as the top U.S. com­man­der in Iraq in Fe­bru­ary, cited the dis­par­ity last week. “The Wash­ing­ton clock is mov­ing more rapidly than the Bagh­dad clock,” he said in a television in­ter­view. “So we’re ob­vi­ously try­ing to speed up the Bagh­dad clock a bit and to pro­duce some progress on the ground that can, per­haps . . . put a lit­tle more time on the Wash­ing­ton clock.”

While Wash­ing­ton ap­pears headed to­ward a po­lit­i­cal endgame on Iraq, with the White House and Congress spar­ring over bench­marks and pull­out dates, the war on the ground is at an ebb tide. All sides — in­clud­ing U.S. mil­i­tary strate­gists and Iraqi sec­tar­ian lead­ers and in­sur­gents, as well as re­gional play­ers such as Iran, Syria, Saudi Ara­bia and Turkey — are wait­ing to see whether the new U.S. approach to make the Iraqi cap­i­tal safer will work. Sol­diers on

the ground tend to see the Wash­ing­ton de­bate as ir­rel­e­vant, and the per­spec­tive of many politi­cians in Wash­ing­ton is that the mil­i­tary sched­ule is sim­ply too slow.

“The time scale to suc­ceed is years,” said John J. Hamre, a for­mer deputy de­fense sec­re­tary, while “the time scale for tol­er­ance here is 12 months for Democrats and 18 months for Repub­li­cans.”

One re­sult of this dis­par­ity is the emer­gence of rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent views of the im­pact of the new strat­egy, which has been re­ferred to as a “surge” be­cause it sends more troops into Iraq but which is more note­wor­thy for mov­ing U.S. troops off large, iso­lated bases and into smaller out­posts across the cap­i­tal.

Pres­i­dent Bush said last month that “there’s been good progress,” and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) con­cluded on a trip to Iraq last week that “we have a new strat­egy that is mak­ing progress.” But of­fi­cers in Iraq tend to be far more cau­tious. Pe­traeus him­self has re­peat­edly said it is too early to tell whether the new strat­egy is show­ing sus­tained progress. He and oth­ers say they will be able to as­sess by this fall whether they are suc­ceed­ing or fail­ing. If so, the cur­rent de­bate over a pos­si­ble 2008 with­drawal could prove be­side the point.

An of­fi­cial in Iraq warned that ex­e­cut­ing the new approach will take time — per­haps more than Wash­ing­ton is will­ing to give. “Early signs are very en­cour­ag­ing — huge drop in sec­tar­ian killings in Bagh­dad, re­turn of thou­sands of refugee fam­i­lies,” he said, speak­ing on the con­di­tion of anonymity so that he could be can­did. “But there is no way we can de­feat this in­sur­gency by sum­mer. I be­lieve we can be­gin to turn the tide by then, and have an idea if we are do­ing it. To de­feat it com­pletely is a fiveto-10-year project, min­i­mum — and rush­ing it along to meet a D.C. time­line is rush­ing to fail­ure.”

An Army of­fi­cer who has served in Iraq and is now back in the United States summed up the sit­u­a­tion by say­ing that “we are wit­ness­ing the throes . . . of a very messy di­vorce” be­tween the pol­i­tics of the war and the way it is be­ing fought. The “kids” scarred by the breakup, he pre­dicted, will be the Iraqi peo­ple and the U.S. Army and Marine Corps.

In ad­di­tion to the new mil­i­tary strat­egy, a new team is tak­ing over the U.S. ef­fort in Iraq. For the first time since 2004, there is a fresh U.S. com­man­der in Iraq, with Pe­traeus re­plac­ing Army Gen. Ge­orge W. Casey Jr. He is work­ing with a new No. 2 com­man­der, Army Lt. Gen. Ray­mond T. Odierno, and a new U.S. am­bas­sador to Iraq, Ryan C. Crocker. There are changes at the Pen­tagon — a new Army chief of staff and Don­ald H. Rums­feld’s re­place­ment, De­fense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates, as well as a va­cancy for Army sec­re­tary — and at Cen­tral Com­mand, the U.S. mil­i­tary com­mand re­spon­si­ble for the Mid­dle East. The re­place­ments amount to the big­gest per­son­nel change of the war — and the new play­ers are still set­tling in.

In Bagh­dad, there are a few signs of im­prove­ment, but they tend to be off­set by wor­ri­some in­di­ca­tions else­where in Iraq. Sec­tar­ian killings are down about 50 per­cent since the new strat­egy be­gan, ac­cord­ing to U.S mil­i­tary spokes­men. Car bomb­ings are up, but so are tips from Iraqis. It is im­pos­si­ble to know how much of the de­crease in vi­o­lence is at­trib­ut­able to the big­gest Shi­ite mili­tia — rad­i­cal cleric Mo­q­tada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army — de­cid­ing to lie low. In ad­di­tion, noted a U.S. Army of­fi­cer pre­par­ing for his third Iraq tour, when one side in a war al­ters its tac­tics, the other side usu­ally will take time to study the shift and as­sess vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties be­fore re­new­ing at­tacks. Also, in An­bar prov­ince, there are solid in­di­ca­tions of tribal lead­ers turn­ing against al-Qaeda ex­trem­ists.

But, re­ported one Spe­cial Forces vet­eran who has worked in Iraq in the mil­i­tary and as a civil­ian, “the surge in Bagh­dad is push­ing the sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence to other parts of Iraq.” That is one rea­son for the in­creased fight­ing in nearby Diyala prov­ince that led U.S. com­man­ders to send in a Stryker bat­tal­ion that was part of the troop buildup. Like­wise, the Marine Corps’ new suc­cess in An­bar ap­pears to have forced some al-Qaeda fight­ers to shift to Mo­sul, Baqubah and Tall Afar, which in 2006 was hailed as a U.S. suc­cess story but in the past month has been the scene of a hor­rific truck bomb­ing and re­venge killings by Shi­ite po­lice. Also, a mil­i­tary intelligence of­fi­cer warned of other trou­bling signs out­side Bagh­dad: Kirkuk edg­ing closer to ex­plo­sion, the Turks in­creas­ingly un­happy with Kur­dish ac­tiv­ity, and an im­pend­ing Bri­tish draw­down in the south that could make U.S. sup­ply lines from Kuwait more vul­ner­a­ble.

An­other mil­i­tary intelligence vet­eran of Iraq said he thinks the Pe­traeus approach is get­ting some re­sults, but he pre­dicted that vi­o­lence will spike this sum­mer, in part as an at­tempt by Iraqi fac­tions to in­flu­ence the U.S. po­lit­i­cal de­bate. The bot­tom line, said Jef­frey White, a for­mer De­fense Intelligence Agency an­a­lyst, is that by this fall the pic­ture may be mixed. “Things could look sub­stan­tially brighter in Bagh­dad but much worse else­where,” said White, who is now at the Wash­ing­ton In­sti­tute for Near East Pol­icy.

The most that can hap­pen by mid-sum­mer, say se­nior of­fi­cers in Iraq, is that the U.S. mil­i­tary might be­gin to know whether the new approach is work­ing or fail­ing.

“It will be months, not days or weeks, be­fore we see real indicators of progress,” Pe­traeus said in his in­ter­view with PBS’s Jim Lehrer last week.

Also, of­fi­cers say, ma­jor ques­tions re­main about the sus­tain­abil­ity of any pos­i­tive mo­men­tum. Mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions can buy time but can­not solve the ba­sic prob­lem in Iraq: the grow­ing threat of a civil war. The U.S. gov­ern­ment keeps push­ing for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, but there are few signs of move­ment to­ward that goal. “Noth­ing is go­ing to work un­til the par­ties are ready to com­pro­mise, and I don’t see any indicators yet that they are,” said A. Heather Coyne, who has worked in Iraq both as a mil­i­tary re­servist and as a civil­ian. “Un­til then, any ef­fect of the surge will be tem­po­rary.”

Larry Di­a­mond, a Stan­ford Univer­sity pro­fes­sor who worked with the U.S. oc­cu­pa­tion author­ity and has been crit­i­cal of the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s approach, agreed: “If we don’t get a po­lit­i­cal break­through, noth­ing we do mil­i­tar­ily is go­ing to work.”

A po­lit­i­cal break­through in Wash­ing­ton al­ready hap­pened, Hamre said, when Novem­ber’s elec­tions turned into a ref­er­en­dum on the war. “The Amer­i­can peo­ple have been wait­ing to hear how we were go­ing to win in Iraq, and they never heard that, so they turned against it,” he said. “But the po­lit­i­cal evo­lu­tion is mov­ing much faster here than events there.”

Yet, with a new approach un­der­way in Bagh­dad, the Wash­ing- ton de­bate is largely ir­rel­e­vant to the con­cerns of the sol­dier on the ground, said the Army of­fi­cer who re­cently re­turned from Bagh­dad. “All the talk about pull­outs, votes and bud­gets re­ally doesn’t mean much to that 18-year-old with his body ar­mor driv­ing across Iraq wor­ried about IEDs,” he said, re­fer­ring to road­side bombs. “For him, life con­sists of try­ing to sur­vive for 365 days to get back home — only to know he’ll have to come back again.”


Army Specs. Bran­don Koontz, left, and Alvin Tapia pa­trol with a Stryker bat­tal­ion in Bagh­dad. Other mem­bers of the brigades, sent to Iraq as part of Pres­i­dent Bush’s “surge,” are work­ing to stem vi­o­lence spilling over from the cap­i­tal.

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