Friday, February 1, 2008

Security in Iraq: Will Surge Gains Hold?

The Iraq war is starting to seep back into election year political calculations.

Progress in Iraq security had become the big news story of late-2007, and then, suddenly, war progress became the non-story, as the heavy media coverage of the conflict dropped off precipitously as less "if it bleeds" headlines came out of Baghdad.
Public opinion polls in the U.S. showed Americans' interest in the confllict at an all-time low, and most pundits have suggested the economy will be the driving force in election '08.

Yet U.S. military officials never trumpeted victory in Iraq as security gains picked up. Officials know that remants of the insurgency could move back into action, and outside actors like Iran would have a continuing interest in chaos on the Iraqi street.

This week's Time reports on the success of the surge in Iraq, noting both dramatic gains in security and the real fragility of life in the country:

Like many retail districts in downtown Baghdad, al-Kindy Street has lately had little to offer shoppers but a fine assortment of fear, blood and death. Shootings and regular bombings have shuttered many of al-Kindy's stores, where some of Baghdad's wealthiest residents once bought everything from eggplants to area rugs. At this time last year, al-Kindy was deteriorating into just another bombed-out corner of a city spiraling out of control.

Then came the surge—President George W. Bush's controversial deployment, beginning last January, of an additional 30,000 U.S. troops, that seemed as tactically bold as it was politically unpopular. With his approval ratings ebbing and a bipartisan group of wise elders urging him to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq, Bush went in the other direction. Overcoming the opposition of the Joint Chiefs, Bush sent five additional combat brigades to secure the capital, hunt down al-Qaeda in Iraq in the countryside and, at least in theory, stop the violence long enough for the country's Sunnis and Shi'ites to find common ground on power-sharing.

The surge's successes and limits are both plainly visible on al-Kindy today. A well-stocked pharmacy has reopened. A new cell-phone store selling the latest in high-tech gadgets opened in December. A trickle of shoppers moved along the sidewalks on a recent chilly morning as a grocer, who asked that his name not be used, surveyed the local business climate. "Things are improving slightly," he said. "But not as much as we hoped." Indeed, if al-Kindy is coming back, it is doing so slowly, unevenly—and only with a lot of well-armed help. Sandbagged checkpoints stand at either end of al-Kindy, manned by Iraqi soldiers with machine guns. Iraqi police in body armor prowl back alleys and side streets to intercept would-be car bombers. U.S. military officials often point visitors to al-Kindy Street as a metaphor for what is working—and what remains undone. "We still have some work to do," says Lieut. General Ray Odierno, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq. "I tell everybody we've opened a window. There's a level of security now that would allow [Iraqi politicians] to take advantage of this window in time, pass the key legislation to bring Iraq together so they can move forward. Are they going to do that? In my mind, we don't know."

One year and 937 U.S. fatalities later, the surge is a fragile and limited success, an operation that has helped stabilize the capital and its surroundings but has yet to spark the political gains that could set the stage for a larger American withdrawal. As a result of improving security in Iraq, the war no longer is the most pressing issue in the presidential campaign, having been supplanted by the faltering U.S. economy. Voters still oppose the war by nearly 2 to 1, but Democrats sense the issue could be less galvanizing as troops begin to return home. Republicans who supported the surge, like Arizona Senator John McCain, have been trying out tiny victory laps lately, but because the hard-won stability could reverse itself, both parties are proceeding carefully. Interviews with top officials in Baghdad and Washington and on-the-ground assessments by Time reporters in Iraq reveal why the surge has produced real gains—but also why the war still has the capacity to cause collateral damage half a world away.
This brings us to today's news of two devastating car bomb attacks in Baghdad, which serves as a reminder of the country's potential for an uptick in violence.

There will likely be more bombings, as U.S. and Iraqi forces adapt to the drawdown of 2007's beefed up troop contingents.

Already, however, radical antiwar types are celebrating the carnage (
here and here), proclaiming today's violence as proof that the surge not only failed, but that the shift in U.S. strategy under General David Petraeus was a scam, an "unscrupulous" bait-and-switch promotion full of "artificial manipulations" and "relative metrics" designed to hoodwink American public opinion.

One of the most depressing aspects of the story is that al Qaeda deployed two women believed to have Down's syndrome in the attacks.
The Daily Mail reports:

Al Qaeda fanatics plumbed sickening new depths yesterday when they turned two women with Down's syndrome into human bombs to kill 70 people in Baghdad.

The unwitting pawns were apparently fooled into wearing explosive vests which were then detonated remotely by mobile phones as the women mingled with crowds.

The two blasts caused carnage at two busy markets in the Iraqi capital's deadliest atrocity since last spring.
Americans have learned, over and over again, since 9/11, of the bottomless depths of depravity shown by our enemies.

Yet back home, among the radical blogosphere, we get not only applause for the atrocity but fulsome praise for the terrorists' "brilliant" strategy. Here's
Libby Spencer pumping up al Qaeda's tactics used in the bloody, nihilist killing of dozens of innocent Iraqis:

I think it's just horrible that whoever was behind this latest disaster used Down's women to perpetrate the bombings but I don't see it as a sign of desperation. I see it as a sign of adaptation and a brilliant one at that.
Just "horrible"?

Right. Ms. Libby's salivating at the prospects of additional casualities in the days, weeks, and months ahead, better for growing the prospects of Iraq becoming a big election year rallying point for the nihilist antiwar hordes and their Democratic allies back here at home.

Daily Kos took advantage of the Iraq bloodshed to portray the GOP presidential frontrunner as out of touch with reality on the war.

Even some in the leftist journalistic set are getting into the surge-is-failing orgy.
Joe Klein at Time, ever the prevaricator, hammers away at the surge while trying to appear objective, even linking to true experts who can provide some realist perspective on the progress and the stakes.

These events - in Iraq and in American electoral politics - should not be surprising. Much of the concern throughout 2007 was whether security gains would be large enough to leave residual stability long after the increased brigades were called back.

While the Democrats are giddy at the prospects of the war becoming an election year issue, no one wins if violence indeed returns with greater frequency.

Unfortunately, the developments in the war have taken a troubling turn precisely when the conservative base is most upended over the GOP nomination race.

The candidate most prepared to lead on the war is the one most reviled by the irrational right -
Michelle Malkin, Rush Limbaugh, and the huge number of discontented Thompson fanatics who've refused to put down their muskets and pitchforks.

I blogged the other day on Kimberly Kagan's Wall Street Journal essay, which argued for a careful evaluation of the right pace and scope of troop withrawals in Iraq.

But see also Max Boot's essay, "
We Are Winning. We Haven't Won," at the Weekly Standard.

Things are dramatically better in Iraq today than a year ago, but we have work to do.

As the presidential campaign continues, I want to suggest to conservative readers that the war will be an election issue in November. Our best chances for it to be a winning issue for the GOP, however, will emerge if we have a former U.S. Navy Squadron leader as the Republican standard-bearer, one who'll put the Democrats up on his knee and give them a lesson on how to defeat our enemies.

Some may disagree, but to suggest otherwise, I would argue, might tempt a bout of the dreaded "
McCain Derangement Syndrom."

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