Thursday, Apr 19, 2018
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Keep on surging

"SENTENCE first; verdict later," said the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. The Queen of Hearts isn't a member of the U.S. Senate, but she has the temperament for it.

This week, Republican Sens. Richard Lugar of Indiana and George Voinovich of Ohio joined the vast majority of their Democratic colleagues in declaring the troop surge in Iraq a failure. This is curious because (a) the change in strategy has barely begun to be implemented, and (b) the initial signs are positive.

The troop surge formally began Jan. 10 with the announcement that five additional Army brigades would be sent to Iraq. The last brigade did not arrive until the week before last.

"What we've been doing so far is putting forces into position, said David Kilcullen, a former Australian army officer who advises our new commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, on counterinsurgency. "We haven't actually started what I would call the surge yet," he noted in an interview two weeks ago.

But the announcement of the surge and the arrival of its first units did have two immediate effects: al-Qaeda operatives began to leave Baghdad for other parts of Iraq (chiefly Diyala province northeast of Baghdad), and sectarian deaths within Baghdad plunged. (These rose in May, but remain at less than half their pre-surge levels.)

Violence is also down significantly in Anbar province, which at this time last year was al-Qaeda's foremost stronghold.

As one of its architects told the House Foreign Affairs Committee Wednesday, the surge represents a repudiation of the strategy the Bush Administration has followed in Iraq since the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein's regime.

"That approach relied on keeping the American troop presence in Iraq as small as possible, pushing unprepared Iraqi security forces into the lead too rapidly, and using political progress as the principal means of bringing the violence under control," Frederick Kagan said.

The new strategy is to go on the offensive against al-Qaeda and Shiite extremists backed by Iran, with protecting Iraqi civilians from the terrorists the foremost objective. All successful counterinsurgencies in the past succeeded by protecting the population. But protecting Iraqi civilians wasn't even on the list of priorities for Gen. George Casey, the previous commander in Iraq.

As I write these words, several division-size offensives are under way in Iraq, the most important of which is "Arrowhead Ripper" in Diyala province.

"These operations are qualitatively different from what we've done before, " Mr. Kilcullen said in a post at the Small Wars Journal. "Our concept is to knock over several insurgent safe havens simultaneously, in order to prevent the terrorists from relocating their infrastructure from one to another. Unlike on previous occasions, we don't plan to leave these areas once they're secured. These ops will run over months, and the key activity is to stand up viable local security forces - to permanently secure them."

Al-Qaeda had made Baqubah the capital of its "Islamic state of Iraq," and U.S. officials had hoped to bag a lot of its leaders with Arrowhead Ripper. But it appears that many of them read the tea leaves and fled before the operation got under way. This has caused some in the news media to portray Arrowhead Ripper as unsuccessful.

Lt. Col. Kilcullen is unperturbed. "The 'terrain' we are clearing is human terrain, not physical terrain," he explained. "It is about marginalizing al-Qaeda, Shiite extremist militias, and other terrorist groups from the population they prey on. This is why claims that '80 percent of al-Qaeda leadership have fled' don't overly disturb us: The aim is not to kill every last AQ leader, but rather to drive them off the population and keep them off."

"Progress toward the end-state goal of Arrowhead Ripper - turning over Baqubah to Iraqi government control - appears to be working," said Michael Yon, a former Special Forces soldier who is now a free-lance journalist embedded with the U.S. troops conducting the assault.

After four years of fumbling, we finally have a strategy that makes sense and shows concrete signs of progress. But now some Republican senators are joining Democrats in attempting to strangle it in its crib.

And what is the "new" strategy that Mr. Lugar and Mr. Voinovich would have us follow instead of the surge? It's the old failed Bush strategy dressed up in new clothes, Dr. Kagan said. Pushing for political benchmarks and a rapid draw down of American forces is no more likely to be successful now than it was then.

"Political progress is something that follows the establishment of security, not something that causes it," he said.

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