A Surge Report Card

A SURGE REPORT CARD....So why have I been doing so much surge blogging lately? It's simple: guilt. A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that a friend had told me I should pay more attention to the daily news from Iraq, but that I had declined on the grounds that Iraq's problems are deep and fundamental, not things that are truly affected by either daily setbacks or short-term successes. Worrying over every new car bomb or every new schoolhouse seemed pointless.

I still believe that, but the whole issue kept gnawing at me. I'm a professional blogger! The magazine pays me to care about stuff like this! Besides, maybe my friend was right. Maybe there really was some good news from the ground that I was overlooking.

I continue to believe that political reconciliation is what really matters in Iraq, and that it's all too easy to let day-to-day news distract you from that. For that reason, I don't plan to become a regular surge blogger. But for what it's worth, here's what I have to say about the situation on the ground:

  • The revolt of the Sunni sheiks against al-Qaeda in Anbar and other Sunni strongholds is genuinely good news. And while the revolt had nothing to do with the surge (it began last September, well before the surge started), our quick support for the sheiks demonstrated welcome military flexibility. Link. On the downside, this is a strategy with obvious risks, since there's a good chance that the sheiks will turn against us as soon as they've finished off AQI.
  • The civilian death toll in Iraq appears to be down from its peak earlier in the year, but still considerably higher than last summer. Link. My best guess is that we're just seeing the usual seasonal pattern here, in which violence peaks in the fall and then drops off over the summer. In any case, casualty figures are vague and unreliable since the Pentagon refuses to release its figures and the Iraqi Health Ministry is no longer cooperating with the UN. Link.

  • It appears that insurgents may have simply left Baghdad temporarily during the surge and increased their activity elsewhere. Again, figures are spotty, but violence appears to be on the rise in northern Iraq. Link.

  • There are widespread reports that the Army under Gen. Petraeus has done a good job of improving its counterinsurgency tactics. However, the evidence so far is mostly anecdotal and based on carefully controlled visits. This makes it very difficult to determine whether this success is genuinely widespread.

  • Reports of progress are considerably undermined by the apparently growing consensus that the U.S. will need to keep a significant military presence in Iraq for the better part of the next decade. This is hard to square with genuine confidence that the surge is reducing violence significantly. Link.

  • Everyone agrees that the Iraqi police is still a disaster: corrupt, violent, and almost entirely infiltrated by Shiite militias. Link.

  • The Iraqi army is doing a little better, according to the Pentagon, but the evidence on that score is thin and anecdotal. Link. Other anecdotal evidence suggests that the Iraqi army is nearly as thoroughly infiltrated by Shiite militias as the police. Link1. Link2.

  • The British are leaving southern Iraq, which has already begun devolving into intra-Shiite civil war. Link.

  • The Kirkuk election is still scheduled for later this year. Increased violence there seems almost certain regardless of whether the election is postponed or held on schedule. Link.

  • With the exception of the telephone network, the infrastructure news is almost uniformly bad. Oil exports are down, fuel availability is lower, electricity generation is spottier, and attacks on pipelines are up. Link.

  • The Brookings Iraq Index estimates that the size of the insurgency has grown from 20,000 last year to 70,000 this year. I don't know how seriously to take these estimates, but that's a helluva big jump. Link.
So that appears to be the state of affairs on the ground. Anbar is good news despite the long-term risk of arming Sunni tribal leaders. Petraeus seems to be doing a good job on the counterinsurgency front (though it's frankly hard to say how much of this is good PR based on a limited number of success stories and how much is genuine widespread progress). And it's possible that violence is down in Baghdad, though I'd rate the odds of that at no more than 50-50.

On the downside, most of the evidence suggests that violence is following seasonal patterns and is going up, not down. The insurgency seems to be getting worse in the north. Civil war is breaking out in the south. Anecdotal reports of progress are undercut by suggestions that we'll need to stay in Iraq for another decade. The Iraqi police force is a disaster and the army doesn't appears to be much better, despite the usual Pentagon claims of improvement. Kirkuk is a timebomb. Iraqi infrastructure is in a ruinous decline. And the insurgency is apparently bigger than it was a year ago.

The conventional wisdom this summer, after a steady round of dog-and-pony shows from the military, says that although political progress in Iraq is nil (or even in reverse), at least we're finally making some tactical progress on the security front. And maybe we are. But I'm trying to be as honest as I can be here, and it looks to me like the balance of the evidence suggests that this is more hype than reality. As near as I can tell, we're not making much progress on either front.

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