War Stories

What Congress Needs To Ask Petraeus and Crocker

If we’re staying in Iraq, we need to know why.

Gen. David Petraeus

The globe will resume spinning on its axis when Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker deliver their long-awaited report on conditions in Iraq. (You may have noticed that the Bush administration has put off all decisions, about everything, pending this fateful event.)

Two things are worth noting in advance. First, according to Petraeus’ spokesman, there will be no report per se. The word is being taken as a verb, not a noun; that is, the general and the ambassador will report to Congress, testifying before the House on Monday, the Senate on Tuesday, and, as a follow-up, the National Press Club on Wednesday.

Second, if Petraeus and Crocker decide to go beyond the predictable bromides (x is improving, y is slightly worsening, z is pretty much the same), they would do well to let us in on the status not only of Iraq but also of American strategy.

The surge will be over in April 2008, when the U.S. Army and Marines run out of deployable troops, and therefore at least a quarter of the 20 brigades now in Iraq will inevitably be withdrawn and not replaced. This is by now common knowledge. At the same time, nearly all politicians, including most Democrats, have come out against a total withdrawal and have recognized that we will have some military presence in Iraq for a long time to come.

So, the questions that Congress should make sure Petraeus and Crocker answer are these: After the surge, what? What is the new strategy? What are the core missions of U.S. forces? Where should they go, and what should they do there? What can they accomplish, with a fair chance of success, at reduced levels? And what is the meaning of success?

In recent weeks, Gen. Petraeus has frequently said that he is making “tactical progress.” He will no doubt recite the phrase a few more times next week. It’s important to be clear on what the phrase means and what it doesn’t mean.

It means that military progress is being made in the fight against al-Qaida in Mesopotamia and related jihadist movements, especially in Anbar province but also in such other erstwhile strongholds as Baqubah, Ramadi, and a few neighborhoods around Baghdad.

This is salutary and significant. But it has nothing to do with the surge. And it has at best little effect on the political goals of the war—to create order, protect the civilian population, and help bring about a stable, self-sustaining, self-defending, at least somewhat democratic government of Iraq.

Gen. Petraeus has noted (as would any good officer who’s read Clausewitz) that military victory is hollow without the accomplishment of the war’s political objectives. He has also said that some political objectives are a subset of others—that, for instance, the main reason for protecting the people of Baghdad is to create a secure environment, some “breathing space” that might allow Iraq’s political factions to reconcile and form a unified government.

If there is little chance that these factions can reconcile, then the military operations are futile. And, in the scheme of the fissures now racking Iraq, the defeat of AQM—while worthwhile in its own right—amounts to a bit of a sideshow.

However, the operations in Anbar, Baqubah, and Ramadi do have another virtue, in the context of next week’s testimony: They are activities in which U.S. military power can play a dominant, even a determinant, role. Gen. Petraeus will probably emphasize these operations not just because they’ve been successful (as few operations in Iraq have been), but also because they are something that he, as commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, can control or at least directly affect.

Crocker is in a tougher spot: He has to outline the prospects for Iraq’s political success. Baghdad’s ramshackle central government seems to offer little hope in this regard. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is too beholden to Shiite parties that unalterably oppose sharing power with Sunnis, and this fact further radicalizes the Sunnis. Meanwhile, several Iraqi army units—and nearly all the police forces—are rife with corruption and driven more by sectarian than by national loyalties.

So, in the past few months, Crocker, Petraeus, and a panel of expert advisers have devised a political strategy that seeks to replicate the success of Anbar across all Iraq. The idea is, at least in the short run, to set aside the quarrels of the Baghdad government—even the notion of a cohesive Iraqi nation—and, instead, to cut deals with local leaders, province by province, tribe by tribe. Some of these deals might involve U.S. troops and tribal militias jointly attacking common enemies. More would involve U.S. personnel acting as mediators to negotiate, guarantee, and enforce cease-fires between or among sectarian factions.

The hope (and at least some of its advocates acknowledge that’s what it is: a hope) is that this “patchwork quilt” of alliances and cease-fires will form the basis of a “bottom up” approach to nation-building. The notion is that one local area after another will become secure enough to allow for the delivery of essential services, economic development, and finally political compromise—until, gradually, the zones of “sustainable stability” coalesce into a national entity or perhaps a loosely knit, but not wildly violent, confederation.

Well, it’s a plan, but I have my doubts.

First, Anbar is probably not a relevant model for most of Iraq. The Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar approached American officers—not the other way around—because they were growing sick of AQM’s brutal intrusions in their lives, and they wanted help in wiping out the organization. The Sunnis and Americans (who, only weeks earlier, had been shooting at one another) had interests that were not merely converging but identical.

But what interests do we share with the insurgents, Sunni or Shiite, in other areas of Iraq? What rewards can we offer them to cooperate with us or to make nice with their sectarian foes? What penalties can we credibly threaten to inflict if they refuse? And if some suitable incentives are devised, how long can they be sustained? Even in Anbar, once AQM is decimated, there’s no reason to believe the Sunnis will stay our friends, much less the Shiites’ partners in governance—any more than Stalin remained an ally, or saw the wisdom of Western ways, after the Nazis were crushed.

Second, the idea assumes that Americans will be regarded as legitimate mediators. The most hideous violence of this war stems from the communal struggle between Sunni Arabs and Shiites, but the insurgency hasn’t disappeared; many Iraqis, however they identify themselves, are still motivated to die and kill by the “infidel” occupation. American casualties are climbing, and most of those killed and wounded are not merely caught in the sectarian crossfire; they are deliberate targets of IEDs.

Stephen Biddle, a military analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a key proponent of the patchwork-quilt strategy. But even he emphasizes that the idea would be a political nonstarter if it resulted in a lot more American deaths. The American public, he said in a phone interview, will support overseas deployments of troops—even for many years—as long as not many get killed. For instance, 64,000 U.S. troops are still in Germany, 60 years after the end of World War II and 16 years after the end of the Cold War. American soldiers have been keeping the peace in Bosnia now for more than a decade since the defeat of Slobodan Milosevic. In both operations, virtually no American soldiers have died as a result of hostile fire. (Biddle is a member of Petraeus’ advisory panel, but he emphasized that his views here are entirely his own.)

Biddle also said (again, expressing his personal view) that the strategy in Iraq would require the presence of roughly 100,000 American troops for 20 years—and that, even so, it would be a “long-shot gamble.”

Do Petraeus and Crocker agree with this assessment? Do they agree with each other? Petraeus is a military strategist; Crocker is an Arabist diplomat; they might calculate the risks and prospects differently.

These are some of the questions Congress should ask them next week. If we’re going to stay in Iraq for months and years to come—at a cost of hundreds of billions of additional dollars and hundreds, if not thousands, of additional lives—we at least ought to know why.