Gen Petraeus was keen to emphasise that the ongoing unrest in Iraq is not something he expects to be resolved overnight.
< p>“Northern Ireland, I think, taught you that very well. My counterparts in your [British] forces really understand this kind of operation… It took a long time, decades,” he said.
“I don’t know whether this will be decades, but the average counter insurgency is somewhere around a nine or a 10 year endeavour.”
Granted, the US won’t be fighting all of that war — at some point the Iraqis are going to have to fight on their own. The problem is that we’ve already tried exactly the kind of strategy that the political class wants to implement and it failed badly. We can’t fight a counterinsurgency without a significant presence on the ground and the Iraqis are not yet up to the task. Even though the Iraqis are gaining capabilities by the day, they situation is not yet stable enough for the US to start withdrawing. We’ve already tried the “clear and leave” strategy under Rumsfeld, and it failed. For all the talk about how we need a “new direction” in Iraq, the preferred direction of the political classes seem to be to repeat the same failed strategies that caused the situation to spiral out of control in the first place.
If one wants to see what Iraq would be like after a US withdrawal, the story of Tel Afar provides an example. In September of 2004, US forces cleared out what had been one of the major staging points for insurgent attacks. Tel Afar remained relatively quiet for a few months until May of 2005 in which the poorly-prepared Iraq troops were overrun by insurgent forces. It took 8,000 US and coalition troops to clear the city in September of 2005. That mission, which involved a long-term US presence in the city, was one of the early success stories in the war. George Packer has a lengthy and important analysis of what made Tel Afar successful in The New Yorker and why the shift in tactics there was so crucial to that success. Even so, Tel Afar is not peaceful — terrorist bombings have still killed many civilians, but the insurgents no longer have control of the city and no longer have free reign there.
For all the talk of “staying the course” the reality is that the surge isn’t the same course that failed during the Rumsfeld years. Gen. Petraeus is applying the lessons of Tel Afar to the area in and around Baghdad, and that new course has a far greater chance of working than the strategy of clearing territory only to see the enemy rush back in the second we leave.
The problem isn’t that the strategy isn’t working, its that our political classes don’t have the strength to see this conflict through:
Gen Petraeus is due to return to Washington in September to report on the campaign’s progress.
However, correspondents say the clock in Washington is running fast.
In recent days four Republican senators have withdrawn support for President George W Bush’s Iraq strategy, adding their voice to a growing number calling for a new plan.
And this week will see a contentious debate in the US Senate over a major defence spending bill.
On Sunday the Pentagon announced that US Defence Secretary Robert Gates was cancelling a planned Latin American tour in order to focus on the upcoming clash.
According to BBC world affairs editor John Simpson, the debate is moving so fast in Washington that Gen Petraeus’s efforts, which might have saved the day for the Bush administration if they had been introduced three, or even two, years ago, may well have come too late.
If that is true, and sadly it seems likely, then the US will have learned exactly the wrong lessons. We tried to invade on the cheap, and not make it look like we were occupying Iraq and all we did was give the enemy a foothold. Now we’re trying to cut our losses rather than give this new strategy a chance to work and it will ensure the same outcome as it did in Tel Afar in early 2005 — the enemy will sweep in and turn Iraq into a petri dish for terrorism. The aftereffects of such a rash and blatantly political decision will be dire for the region and for the United States. We will be forced, sooner or later, to finish the job, and we will lose all the progress that we have made in the interim.
We’re in the middle of a long war, and if we send the signal now that we don’t have the will to fight, that message will be heard in Damascus, Tehran, and the Afghan/Pakistan border. Petraeus’ strategy worked in Tel Afar and it can work in the Sunni Triangle — the only question is whether our political classes will end up cutting him off at the knees for the sake of rank political expediency.