by Austin Bay
August 8, 2007
According to major media, America's "surge in Iraq" is suddenly working.
In an op-ed that appeared in The New York Times on July 30, Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack of the left-leaning Brookings Institution called Iraq "a war we just might win." A week later, Robert Burns, who covers military issues for The Associated Press, wrote: "The new U.S. military strategy in Iraq, unveiled six months ago to little acclaim, is working. In two weeks of observing the U.S. military on the ground ... it's apparent that the war has entered a new phase in its fifth year."
Anthony Cordesman, in an essay titled "The Tenuous Case for Strategic Patience in Iraq," remains circumspect, warning, "It is important to note in this regard that while Americans are still concerned with finding ways to define 'victory' in Iraq, virtually the entire world already perceives the U.S. as having decisively lost."
Perhaps the "rest of the world" relies on U.S. Sen. Harry Reid. Months ago, Reid declared Iraq a defeat. For the rest of his political career, Reid will have to live with his declaration.
Is the surge working?
Militarily, the surge represents a change in operational emphasis and in tactical employment of U.S. and coalition troops. The United States has increased the "level of presence" in Iraqi neighborhoods.
Statistics suggest attacks have declined since April, but short-term statistics are subject to debate.
An observation in Robert Burns' report may be more telling than the numbers: "Commanders (in Iraq) are encouraged by signs that more Iraqis are growing fed up with violence."
A sign of war fatigue? Possibly -- but murder fatigue is more apt.
In Iraq, al-Qaida and Saddam's remnant supporters have spent the last four years murdering Muslims en masse. (The same can be said for the Taliban in Afghanistan.) For all the strategic and operational mistakes Washington has made, our tyrant and terrorist enemies' mistakes have been worse. StrategyPage.com, among others, noted in 2004 that while the "murder en masse" strategy seeded fear in Iraq and grabbed international headlines, al-Qaida was paying a huge political price in the Muslim world. In late 2006, several key Sunni tribes in Iraq's Anbar province began turning on al-Qaida -- al-Qaida's war on America had proved to be a bigger threat to them.
Cordesman notes that a number of tribes still align with al-Qaida. Still, there is a trend-line with roots three years deep -- and that trend-line has finally become a headline.
According to President Bush's speech in January, development and reconstruction would be key elements of "the surge," with new emphasis placed on provincial reconstruction and improving local and municipal governments.
Strengthening local and municipal governments has been a U.S. and Iraqi government development objective since 2004, however. A "bottom up" model for consensus-building in Iraq may be another "deep trend." However, this is a slow process. Much of it is learn-by-doing, and learning by doing means accepting setbacks and failures. And that takes patience.
In mid-July, the London Daily Telegraph asked a "senior British official" to assess NATO's commitment to Afghanistan. He replied that he "feared that NATO might not have the "strategic patience" to fight for 10 years -- whereas the Taliban would fight on for 20 or 30 years."
Perhaps "strategic patience" is the phrase du jour -- but it describes an absolutely vital moral, intellectual and political virtue. The anonymous British official's 10-year estimate for sustaining the fight against the Taliban is a rough guess. No matter the numbers, what the official described is a fight spanning a generation.
Make no mistake -- it is a fight for the future, for the conditions of modernity.
Toppling the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam in Iraq created the opportunity for significant, positive, long-term change throughout the region. Now, the challenge is twofold: nurturing and supporting the incremental cultural, political and personal changes that make for societal change, and sustaining America's will to maintain that support.
For the surge to really work, the effort must be sustained.