Have we turned the corner in Iraq?

Today, former White House policy aide Rivkin and Katulis, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, discuss what appears to be good news from the front: Civilian and military deaths in Iraq have dropped precipitously, and thousands of refugees are reported to be returning to the country. Later this week, they’ll talk about an exit plan, the apparent decline in Sunni Islamist appeal in Iraq and other issues.

Keep your nerve
By David B. Rivkin Jr.

By every objective measure of military performance, the United States’ surge of military forces into Iraq has been a great success. The number of terrorist attacks has fallen significantly. American military casualties are down, as are Iraqi civilian casualties. Perhaps the best testament to the surge’s success is that civilian refugees are beginning to return.

Even more important, the United States did not achieve these results alone. Rather, it has demonstrated the ability to work cooperatively with a variety of indigenous Iraqis at the regional and local levels. Adding to a historically strong relationship with Iraq’s Kurdish population, U.S. forces are now reaching out successfully to Sunnis in strategic Anbar province, as well as to a variety of Shiite groups, including more moderate Sadrist elements. These positive relationships are the key to building a stable and peaceful Iraq.

The surge has left Al Qaeda in Iraq reeling from a series of punishing blows. Their leadership cadres have been decimated from senior to middle levels. Thanks to the surge of American forces, working with their Iraqi allies, the terrorists are on the ropes.

The critics’ inability to acknowledge the successes daily playing out in Iraq demonstrates that their criticism is driven by political calculation rather than by any desire to see a victory for the United States and the Iraqi people. Compared to any historical counter-insurgency operation, the surge has been a stunning success.

This isn’t to say that everything is wonderful. To be sure, there is a still much need for political conciliation among the religious and tribal factions making up Iraq’s central government. Yet this truth does not detract from the essential success of the surge. Given that an improved security environment is a prerequisite for serious political conciliation, the surge represents a tremendous step in the right direction.

Those who continue to call for disengagement do not seem to be paying attention to actual developments in Iraq. The country as a whole is growing steadily safer thanks to the influx of additional U.S. forces and the change in the coalition’s counterinsurgency operations, led by Gen. David Petraeus. It is only in the South, where British forces have pursued the very disengagement strategies touted by critics of the surge, that violence has increased.

Americans should be pleased with the results of the surge. Iraq’s steadily improving security environment gives the United States a lot of flexibility. Having crippled Al Qaeda, we can now pursue simultaneous efforts to improve Iraq’s political process, not only at the central level, but also at the regional and local levels. By destroying Al Qaeda, the United States has become the indispensable power in Iraq. If the American public and their leaders keep their nerve, the United States will be perfectly positioned to wield considerable and positive influence throughout Iraq and the broader Middle East over the long term.

David B. Rivkin Jr. is a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Baker Hostetler LLP. He served in a variety of legal and policy positions in the Reagan and Bush 41 administrations, including stints in the White House and the departments of Justice and Energy.

Wishful thinking or myopia
By Brian Katulis

“Is the surge working?” is a question that defies the selective trends you marshal to make your case, David. Like President George W. Bush speaking before the “Mission Accomplished” banner in May 2003 and Vice President Dick Cheney declaring that the insurgency was in its last throes in May 2005, your argument that the surge has been a “success” is yet another example of conservative war supporters seeing what they want to see and ignoring some very dangerous dynamics in Iraq and the Middle East.

No one can dispute that the numbers of deaths of both Iraqi civilians and American soldiers are down from their highest level. Nevertheless, overall levels of violence remain dangerously high — 2007 is the deadliest year for our troops since President Bush began this unnecessary war of choice in 2003.

These declines may simply be the dust settling from the latest phase in Iraq’s struggles for power. As the most recent National Intelligence Estimate noted, declines in violence — particularly in Baghdad — are in large part due to population displacements. In other words, sectarian cleansing continued even while U.S. troop numbers reached their highest levels since the invasion. Independent refugee organizations like the International Organization for Migration and the Iraqi Red Crescent Society report that the number of Iraqis displaced by the conflict doubled since the start of the surge, adding to millions already pushed out of their homes from 2003 to 2006.

An estimated 4.5 million Iraqis are now either refugees outside of the country or displaced inside of Iraq — and the fact that perhaps 1% of them may have returned to Iraq may be a result of stricter measures implemented against refugees by neighboring countries like Syria.

The bigger problem with your argument, David, is that it offers no clear conception of how the competing Iraqi factions — the different sides in Iraq’s multiple civil wars — will actually come together in a sustainable resolution to Iraq’s internal conflicts. This was the point of the surge. On this score, the surge has been a clear failure — and there are no credible signs that a sustainable reconciliation is on the horizon. Right now, the United States is arming different sides of Iraq’s sectarian conflicts — supporting a Shia-dominated Iraqi army, a number of irregular Sunni forces, and a hodgepodge of tribal elements in different corners of Iraq. These actions are in fact making a sustainable political settlement of Iraq’s conflicts less likely.

Moreover, there is a broader strategic danger that the surge just strengthened the hand of our biggest adversaries in the region. This is a lesson that conservatives failed to learn from their experiences in supporting the mujahedin in Afghanistan or getting the United States mired in Lebanon’s civil war in the 1980s. When the United States cooperates with illiberal, theocratic forces as we are doing in Iraq — the leading Shia parties in Iraq are among the closest allies of Iran in the Middle East, and Sunni forces are ideologically similar to Hamas and other radical Islamists who oppose the interests of the United States and its regional allies such as Israel — our security suffers. All too often these temporary alliances of convenience result in dangerous blowback against U.S. security.

After sacrificing thousands of U.S. lives and spending more than half a trillion dollars in borrowed money, the end result of Iraq is that the United States has opened the door to a rapid expansion of Iranian influence westward into Iraq. The surge has further harmed U.S. national security by miring U.S. forces more deeply in Iraq’s civil wars, all at the cost of further harming U.S. military readiness and strengthening the hands of conservative Islamist forces ultimately inimical to U.S. interests. The notion that the United States has become the “indispensable power in Iraq” is wishful thinking at best, David, and deeply irresponsible myopia at worst.

Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, is the coauthor of the forthcoming book “The Prosperity Agenda.”

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