Thursday, August 09, 2007

Does Petraeus Betray Us, or Just Himself?

With surprising unanimity across the political spectrum, General Petraeus receives high praise as an erudite, competent and motivated soldier. He is, after all, the counterinsurgency guru who "wrote" the army's COIN manual (actually, he didn't write it, he oversaw the process but sometimes the myth outpaces reality). Despite the overwhelmingly positive consensus (or perhaps as a result), Petraeus is set up to be victimized by too-lofty expectations imposed on him by an adoring media and a White House that points to him as the one-man answer to all our problems in Iraq (the czar's czar if you will).

However, that is a near-impossible mission for which reputation will only get you so far - as in, nowhere. Yet it is this reputation alone (itself, somewhat embellished) that the Bush administration is counting on to quiet the mounting opposition to the occupation. Just give Petraeus time, it is argued, and we might just win this one despite the long odds. At least let's wait for his September report - on second thought, make that November, or better yet another 6-8 months.

While I don't want to challenge the notion that Petraeus is a talented general, there have been some episodes that indicate that he doesn't actually walk on water - which is what saving Iraq would require.

His actual record in Iraq is mixed. Petraeus is credited with pacifying Mosul, and by most accounts he did an admirable job with that difficult task. His successes there were not lasting ones, though - but that likely has more to do with the intractable nature of the conflict itself than Petraeus' decisions. Beyond that, Petraeus was in charge of arming and training Iraq's security forces, and it was under his watch that the infamous 190,000 weapons went missing. Further, the forces trained under his tenure have not performed well in the field, have shown high desertion rates and have been heavily infiltrated by Iraq's various warring factions. Again, I'm not sure that these setbacks can be laid at Petraeus' feet alone considering the fact that they are driven by factors beyond Petraues' ability to control (Then again, some of these lapses might have been caused or exacerbated by the expedited pace of operations - as mandated by political leaders back home. Which doesn't bode well for those banking on Petraeus' ability to keep political concerns subservient to military policy).

Not that the lack of control excuse should cloak him from criticism either: By Petraeus' own standards he's not in a position to "control" the situation any more now than then, nor is he well positioned to bring about anything resembling "victory," or even the recently recalibrated goal of "sustainable stability."

The very manual that he is credited with writing (somewhat erroneously) calls for about four times as many troops as we have in Iraq - yet Petraeus still claims he can get the job done with too few troops. He has argued that we can make up the shortfall by using Iraqi troops to get us to the magic number, but the last time we tried that approach it was called "clear, hold and build." The "clear, hold and build" plan failed because we were forced to rely on Iraqi troops to do the "holding" and they proved unwilling and/or incapable. Nevertheless, we are assured that our military brass is abandoning the failures of the past, and that Petraeus has a bold, new plan drenched in counterinsurgency doctrine.

Here again, though, the hype doesn't seem match up neatly with the actual play-by-play. For example, there has been a five-fold increase in the number of airstrikes to coincide with The Surge - including the use of heavy, high altitude bombers. The problem with this approach is that it often leads to massive "collateral damage," which is anathema to, once again, the Petraeus manual on counterinsurgency (and any other credible COIN doctrine to boot). Hearts and minds are mass casualties of indiscriminate civilian deaths.

There have been other tactics of dubious counterinsurgency merit as well. In July, the Army shut off electricity to the entire neighborhood of Kadhimiya in an effort to compel the residents to rise up, expel the Mahdi Army militiamen in their midst and/or turn informant. This, despite the fact that the Mahdi men had been providing security and were generally popular in the region - moreso than US forces. How exactly does that fit in to the hearts and minds outreach that is the backbone of COIN doctrine? It doesn't.

In recent days, US military personnel conducted air strikes in populated areas of Baghdad's Sadr City, followed by a wide-net sweep of arrests (described as "arbitrary" by residents), that have the local population seething. Not exactly what you'd expect to see from a counterinsurgency virtuoso.

The incoherence of this Sadr-focused policy should also be noted. We are targeting a political movement and its armed militia that comprises millions of Iraqis. Are we going to vanquish them? Kill or capture? Should we raze Sadr City to save it? Further, the Sadrist current holds a substantial bloc in the Iraqi government that we are fighting to protect, empower, arm and train. Whatever happened to the purple-fingered euphoria? Juan Cole is pretty good in his assessment of these maneuvers:

When al-Maliki is in Baghdad, he tends to run interference for the Sadr Movement, which elected him to office, and to attempt to convince the US military to put off attacking these Shiite forces until after the Sunni Arab guerrillas are dealt with decisively.

Not only did the US military attack these Shiite forces unilaterally, but its spokesmen attempted to link the Mahdi Army cell attacked to the importation of explosively formed projectiles from Iran.

It cannot be an accident that both the attack and the attempt to implicate Iran (with no evidence for the allegations against Tehran provided) came while al-Maliki was in Tehran for high level consultations with the Iranian government.

In other words, the US military is playing a dangerous political game of attempting to undermine al-Maliki's diplomacy with Iran and to alienate the Sadr Movement from him altogether (it has already suspended membership in his government)...This is not the proper role for generals, and it is shocking that Amassador Ryan Crocker and Secretary of State Condi Rice allow it to go on.

While I expect Petraeus to provide an optimistic take in September (probably focusing on military indicators like O'Hanlon and Pollack while soft pedaling the political deterioration), the primary objective of The Surge was to quell violence in order to create space for political reconciliation. Without that political reconciliation, according to Petraeus himself, The Surge will fail and the occupation will prove untenable. Bringing about political reconciliation by trying to drive a wedge between the Shiite parties is a questionable strategy, especially when it relies on the alienation of large portions of the Iraqi population. Even more disturbing, however, is the fact that the Maliki government is shedding its Sunni members and withdrawing to an increasingly narrow sectarian position.

In other words, using Petraeus' own formula for success, The Surge is not only failing to make progress in terms of intra- and inter- sectarian political reconciliation, things are headed in reverse. In the end, the harshest critic of Petraeus' tenure in Iraq will probably be Petraeus himself.

Given the disconnect between his doctrine, and his actions, maybe he should strive for internal reconciliation first.

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