A Freeze in the Surge

Greg Bruno
Council on Foreign Relations
Tuesday, April 8, 2008; 3:25 PM

For years, the debate over American involvement in Iraq has centered on how long to stay and at what cost to U.S. forces. But for the top U.S. military official and the chief U.S. diplomat in Baghdad, the answer in April 2008 is no clearer than it was five years ago, when the U.S.-led war effort began. In testimony before the U.S. Congress on April 8, Gen. David H. Petraeus advocated for an open-ended suspension (AP) of troop withdrawals scheduled to begin this summer. The so-called pause, which would be followed by a 45-day period of "consolidation and evaluation" of future troop needs, would leave roughly 140,000 on the ground, more than the 132,000 in Iraq when President Bush announced a "new way forward" in January 2007.

The recommendation for a withdrawal suspension, made during the first of four hearings on Capitol Hill this week, drew heated criticism from Democratic lawmakers and advocates of a quick withdrawal. The Christian Science Monitor notes that if a pause is implemented it would effectively "mark the end" of President Bush's role to shape the future of the conflict. Bush is scheduled to give a wide-ranging speech on Iraq on Thursday; some officials expect the president to announce a reduction in deployment lengths (Reuters) for U.S. soldiers.

But more than a debate over troop numbers and combat tours is a larger question of whether or not the mission in Iraq is worth the fight -- or if the United States can even win. Both Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker used their initial testimony to paint a mixed picture on prospects of an eventual American victory. They said in spite of the failure of Iraqi forces to subdue militias controlling the city of Basra last week, and despite the fact that security and political progress in Iraq remain fragile, each argued that measurable gains have occurred. Overall violence declined dramatically (PDF) between June 2007 and February 2008, though a surge in internecine Shiite violence in Basra and Baghdad last month did lead to a spike in overall attacks in March 2008. Nonetheless, many analysts -- Michele A. Flournoy of the Center for a New American Security, for instance -- generally share Petraeus' and Crocker's opinions on security improvements (PDF).

And yet Iraq's future is not without significant roadblocks. CFR Senior Fellow Steven Simon writes in Foreign Affairs that the "Anbar awakening" model, where Sunni tribes turned their weapons against al-Qaeda in Iraq, could yet fail. While local cease-fires have brought short-term successes, Simon writes, they have done so by stoking the fires of "tribalism, warlordism, and sectarianism." Equally vexing are recent Shiite-on-Shiite clashes in Basra and the capital. The Iraqi Army was reportedly unprepared (NYT) for the resistance of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, according to senior U.S. military commanders. President Bush declared the Iraqi military's efforts a "defining moment in the history of a free Iraq." But reports of Iranian intervention in securing a cease-fire have raised doubts about the Iraqi government's control of the country (Salon). Petraeus and Crocker each used their prepared statements to reinforce the Bush administration's belief that Iran is funding, training, and arming Iraqi militants.

There are other red flags. TIME magazine reports that despite claims from Baghdad and Washington that Sadr's militia had splintered, his fighters respond to his orders. This could provide an ominous backdrop to testimony from Petraeus and Crocker: Sadr has threatened to lift a cease-fire (Reuters) for his Mahdi army. For Iraqi civilians the situation is equally tenuous. The International Organization for Migration estimates a total of 2.7 million Iraqis have been displaced within Iraq (PDF) since 2003, with an additional 2.4 million living abroad in Syria, Jordan, and elsewhere. Angelina Jolie, who co-chairs CFR's Education Partnership for Children of Conflict, says Iraq's growing child refugees need special attention (WashPost).

Looking past the U.S. troop surge is the focus of talking points presented by the general and the ambassador. U.S. presidential candidates, meanwhile, sought to use the hearings to reframe the political debate (WashPost). As CFR Senior Fellow for Defense Policy Stephen Biddle sees it, the best the United States can do is to change its definition of winning in Iraq. But Terrence K. Kelly, a RAND expert who is a recent Baghdad embassy staffer and former White House official, says "talk of 'victory' and similar terms" (PDF) is premature. "We do not know what that means," Kelly told lawmakers on April 3.

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