By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 1, 2005
President Bush's "strategy for victory" catalogues progress in Iraq over the past 32 months, but also omits or glosses over complications, problems and uncertainties in the most ambitious U.S. military intervention since Vietnam.
Analysts agreed with Bush that a politically motivated withdrawal could embolden extremists to believe the United States will "cut and run in the face of adversity"-- and risk the implosion of a strategic oil-rich country. But they disagreed with key assessments made by the administration on Iraq's military, on how important the U.S. mission in Iraq is to promoting democracy in the broader Middle East, and how much of Iraq has been rebuilt.
Little is new in the 35-page document, titled "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq," which covers three broad fronts: security, political development and economic issues. The interpretation it yields depends heavily on viewing the glass half-full rather than half-empty -- and doing so in defiance of daily suicide bombings, abductions or deaths. Unspoken is the critical element of the timing of the strategy's release.
"There's a lot that the administration's critics won't disagree with, but it's late," said Robert Malley, director of the International Crisis Group Middle East program. "I don't think the president has the luxury of time to implement a sound policy, both because of the stress on the military but also because of the problem of the trust of the American public and political elite."
On security, Bush said more than 120 Army and police battalions are in the field -- about a third "in the lead" -- in a huge leap from 18 months ago, when the Pentagon junked its initial approach to training and started over.
But the rising numbers mask lingering Iraqi weaknesses and have not curbed insurgent attacks. "There's been an increase in the number of Iraqis in training, but more Americans are dying and violence is increasing," said Lawrence Korb, a Reagan administration Pentagon official now at the Center for American Progress.
Bush noted that Iraqis are now in charge of tough areas in Baghdad -- but failed to mention that the capital is still far from safe, with many major streets vulnerable to attack. He praised the Iraqis' combat performance in the recent Tall Afar offensive -- but left out that Iraqi logistics were in shambles and that each platoon of 20 was led by a U.S. Special Forces officer.
Bush yesterday described his strategy as "clear, hold and build." But in practice, the military has come under fire for too much emphasis on chasing insurgents around the country and not enough on securing areas that have been cleared of enemy fighters. U.S. and Iraqi troops have often had to return to fight in towns where they had fought before.
Military commanders have acknowledged lacking sufficient forces to hold some towns previously cleared of insurgents. But they say that situation is rapidly improving as the ranks of Iraqi forces grow.
On the political front, the new strategy document says staying the course in Iraq is the key to the fate of the greater Middle East. If the United States left before the mission was finished, it said, "Middle East reformers would never again fully trust American assurances of support for democracy and pluralism in the region -- a historic opportunity. . . forever lost."
But a new public opinion poll to be released tomorrow finds that 77 percent of those surveyed in six countries -- Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, all U.S. allies -- say Iraqis are worse off than before the war began in 2003.
On democracy, 58 percent believe the U.S. intervention has produced less democracy in the region, said Shibley Telhami, author of the annual survey, a joint effort by the University of Maryland's Anwar Sadat chair for peace and development, and Zogby International. Almost 70 percent said they do not believe democracy was the real U.S. goal in toppling Saddam Hussein.
"So the consequences of the war are all negative from their point of view," Telhami said.
Bush's emphasis on military strategy also "violates" the first rule of counterinsurgency, which is politics first, said Brookings Institution analyst Michael O'Hanlon. "I didn't see much effort to improve the constitution, where things like equitable oil revenues are critical and are not yet in the constitution or assured. . . . The president seems to dwell on the technical military training issue, which is important but is not enough to constitute the core of a strategy."
On Iraq's economic future, the document says reconstruction of a country battered by war and starved by a dictatorship and international economic sanctions is key to winning over Iraq's 25 million people to the U.S. vision of a new Iraq.
But in a striking rollback from an earlier, more optimistic position, the administration says Iraq has the "potential" to become prosperous and self-sustaining -- without specifying a time frame. In 2003, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz said Iraq's oil revenues "could bring between $50 and $100 billion over the course of the next two or three years. . . . We're dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon," he told a House committee.
Oil production is slightly down from a year ago, the new strategy acknowledges.
On issues that affect daily life, unemployment is 25 percent to 40 percent, while the average amount of electricity output is lower than in October 2003 because insurgents have been able to repeatedly destroy cables and distribution stations, according to the International Crisis Group.
"If you don't have sufficient security to find out what the reconstruction needs are and deploy security teams to protect engineers, you can't do the work to rebuild the country," said International Crisis Group Vice President Mark Schneider.
Bush's strategy report cites International Monetary Fund figures that Iraq's per capita gross domestic product rose to $942 in 2004 and is expected to rise to more than $1,000 this year.
But in its September World Economic Outlook, the IMF also notes that Iraq's new government "faces daunting medium-term challenges, including advancing the reconstruction of the country's infrastructure, reducing macroeconomic instability and developing the institutions that can support a market-based economy."
Staff writers Bradley Graham in Washington and Jonathan Finer in Baghdad contributed to this report .