This column was written by Mario Loyola.
Thursday's interim progress report on the surge in Iraq ran into a long-expected cold shower: Nobody wants to hear it. Bad news out of Iraq is what the market wants. Signs of progress cause controversy and consternation.
How time flies. On October 11, 2002, the People of the United States, in Congress assembled, said this:
(a) AUTHORIZATION- The President is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to—Interesting choice of words. Remember that the seminal U.N. resolution of the Iraq crisis, which passed shortly after Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, "authorizes" the use of "all necessary means … to restore international peace and security in the region."
(1) defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and
(2) enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq.
Just what did Congress think it would take to accomplish all of this? A quick in-and-out police raid?
The October resolution meant war, and Congress knew it. And all Americans knew — because the president and his entire Cabinet never tired of repeating it — that this was going to be a long, hard struggle; a painful and costly struggle; and that the outcome was uncertain.
So where are we now? Four years and nine months later almost to the day, we have suffered some 4,000 casualties, and many more wounded; a trillion dollars in treasure gone; and years during which our democracy could hardly think of anything else because of its transfixion on the drama of Iraq.
On the other side of the balance, we saw the toppling of Saddam's regime.
We saw the sight of Saddam himself, hunted down like a dog, hanging from an ignominiously improvised gallows, with all his unspeakable sins still on his head. We saw justice for his victims, and a warning to future despots. And think of our original aims — the elimination of a state-sponsor and practitioner of terrorism; and the shuttering of a black-market weapons bazaar where God-knows-who was selling God-knows-what to our worst enemies.
Instead of that regime, we have today the prospect of a functioning democracy. And while it's as ugly and messy as they come, it is also on the very verge of being able to defend itself, govern itself, sustain itself, and be an ally in the war against Muslim extremism.
Yet now, in the opening stages of the first major American-Iraqi counteroffensive since the bombing of the Samarra mosque in early 2006, Congress is ready to surrender.
Ask yourself this: If on the day that Congress passed the Iraq-war resolution, they had been able to gaze into a crystal ball and see all that was to flow from their vote — the responsibility that went with their conviction; the uses to which the president would put the awesome powers they were granting him; the fact that many thousands of our soldiers would soon find themselves fighting and dying for duty, sacred honor, and their beautiful country — if on that day, 13 months to the day after September 11, 2001 — they had known all that would transpire between that day and this, are we to believe that they would they have wavered? They would have cravenly warned of the inevitability of failure? They would have thought 4,000 casualties an excessive price to pay for destroying one of the most barbaric regimes since World War II, a regime whose victims must be counted in the hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of human beings?
And what if they had known then that this very day, U.S. and Iraqi forces would be marching into every neighborhood of Iraq's most troubled provinces, boldly, and brooking no resistance?
Just weeks into the decisive counteroffensive of the war, we are breaking the back of enemy resistance across that central third of Iraq that was always the focus of the war. Thousands of insurgents have been captured and hundreds killed; the Shiite death-squads have been overawed, and have gone largely into hiding; the al Qaeda leadership is being annihilated before our eyes; and whole tribes — formerly bitter enemies of the Coalition — are coming over to our side wholesale, swelling the ranks of the Iraqi security forces. Anbar province, which just months ago was thought an unassailable base for al Qaeda, is fast becoming an unassailable pillar of the new Iraqi state.
Yesterday, the White House released the unclassified version of its preliminary report to Congress on the surge. What's the upshot? Mixed, needless to say. Progress in some areas, not so much in others. Inevitably, the press was going to cite this as further evidence of defeat. But the report honed in on the key thing:
What is important is the overall trajectory, which, under our present strategy, has begun to stabilize, compared to the deteriorating trajectory seen over the course of 2006.Operation Phantom Thunder is meant to lay the groundwork for a "clear, hold, and build" operation set to commence in coming weeks. Stay tuned. The real offensive has yet to begin.
But American forces are on a tight rotation schedule. The surge must begin to recede early next year, because the surge units — in addition to the units already previously scheduled to leave Iraq — must begin to depart in the spring, and there are no forces to take their place. A moment's reflection suffices to see that American forces will be used in large numbers only for the "clear" phase of the coming offensive. The "hold" and "build" dimensions of the war will be the responsibility of the Iraqis.
In the past, the basic problem was that many Iraqi units would simply fail to show up; and those that did show up were grossly undermanned — sometimes at barely 35 percent endstrength. After the president's press conference yesterday I asked one senior administration official if he had any confidence that Iraqi Security Forces would be up to the job of "hold and build" when they hadn't been before — in Tal Afar and Fallujah for example. He noted the growing "maturity" of the Iraqi Security Forces; their newfound sense of discipline; and the fact that their units are reporting to the most hardcore operations in Baghdad as promised, and at endstrenths of 50 to 65 percent. And they are taking three times as many casualties — man-for-man — as U.S. forces.
There's one often overlooked difference between the opposing sides in the Iraq conflict. America and its Coalition and Iraqis allies can solve their problems on the ground. It may be tough and expensive; and it might take a long time. We might have to redress bureaucratic accounting problems, and field artillery deficiencies, and the lack of airlift and other maneuver capabilities in the ISF. But we are redressing them.
Meanwhile the forces battling the central government can't solve their problems. With every month that passes, the so-called insurgents seem weaker and more fractured. The most vital manpower reserve of the insurgency — the Sunni tribes — are coming over to our side wholesale. And according to one of the most senior counter-insurgency advisors to General Petraeus, "This is not a result of planning. It's a fashion trend." If anyone is begging for an exit-strategy from its current predicament, it is the insurgency.
Put yourself in their shoes. They have studied history. They know what an insurgency needs in order to win. They know that they will never achieve national geographic scope. No foreign army is going to come to their rescue. They will never have diplomatic recognition, from any country. No Iraqi general will ever defect to their side.
As things now stand, they cannot win. Their only hope is Congress. And now — at the very moment that our troops finally have the chance to prove they can win — a majority of the Congress wants to legislate defeat, by interfering in the strategic and tactical judgments of the constitutional commander-in-chief and his generals, and force them to do things that they are convinced will throw to the winds all that we have gained at such a terrible price.
In yesterday's press conference, President Bush made plain what he thinks of that. "I don't think it makes sense today, nor do I think it's a good precedent for the future."
By Mario Loyola
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online