Petraeus and Crocker: Hope as Military Strategy

Originally billed as an independent report on the situation in Iraq, Petraeus’ testimony to Congress has been long-awaited. Many moderate Republicans who claim to be uncomfortable with President Bush’s ongoing Iraq war policy insisted on waiting for Petraeus’ recommendations before making rash decisions about troop withdrawal. If they were hoping for some fig leaf to continue to support President Bush’s war, they got it – but only if they ignore the truth.

In his testimony Petraeus praised heightened security capacity and described improvements as “substantial.” Stating directly, “I wrote this [testimony] myself,” Petraeus boasted declines in “security incidents” and that “Iraqi security elements have been standing and fighting.”

Petraeus then produced a series of charts on the levels of violence in Iraq, most of which began in mid-2006 and ended in August 2007. Despite a rosy spin, according to the charts, civilian deaths, sectarian killings, and terrorist activities like car bombings and suicide bombings, which spiked in late 2006 and early 2007, are basically back to pre-surge levels.

Petraeus neglected to inform members of Congress that heightened security in Baghdad has resulted from population displacement. Prior to the war, Baghdad was about 65% Sunni; today it is about 75% to 80% Shia. Much of the displacement has come from the forced expulsion of Sunnis from Baghdad over the past 4 years. Surely ethnic cleansing as a security tactic is nothing to brag about.

Petraeus proceeded to tout the much-discussed “progress” in Anbar Province in western Iraq. Anbar, which holds approximately 5 percent of Iraq‘s population, recently saw some Sunni tribal leaders join US forces against Al Qaeda.

According to the Washington Post, a Pentagon report recommending these tactics in Anbar warned that such a situation is temporary, a point Petraeus did not raise. Petraeus also did not discuss how developments there were prompted by US military disengagement in the province combined with offers to arm Sunni groups who fear Shia dominance in Iraq.

Still, no responsible analyst could honestly describe this as a basis for a long-term political reconciliation in Iraq. Rather, such tactics merely delay still likely sectarian conflict between newly armed Sunni groups and the central government. According to the Post, the Pentagon report said that the groups involved would play “both ends of the insurgency, coalition versus the insurgents, against the middle while maintaining a single motive, to force the coalition to leave Iraq.”

Petraeus then reported that he had recommended a withdrawal of the “surge” forces beginning this month and ending in the summer of 2008. But his description of this troop withdrawal as “substantial” was somewhat misleading. The surge was scheduled to end next spring anyway with 30,000 troops redeployed back to their original stations.

Petraeus did not provide much detail about US casualties during the surge, which remain at levels equal to much of 2006.

Rep. Ike Skelton (D-MO), in his John Wayne-esque cadences, refused to dispute the credibility of Petraeus and Crocker, but Skelton picked up on public impatience for promised progress in his single question to Ambassador Crocker.

Given that we’ve been waiting for progress for more than four years, Skelton pointedly asked, what makes you think anything will be different in the future?

Crocker admitted that he couldn’t foresee measurable progress on benchmarks, but testified that progress could be measured in abstract impressions and feelings. He insisted that current “debates” over federalism in Iraq, Iraqi “frustration” with political gridlock, and the lessening of how “controversial” is the idea of Iraqi nationalism are “the seeds of reconciliation.”

These vague impressions and behind-the-scenes murmurings were not the rationale for the troop surge. The purpose for the surge was to provide a secure space in which Iraqi leaders could make concrete, measurable progress as listed in the benchmarks.

In his remarks, Crocker essentially laid out the same political strategy already in place before the surge, but could offer no new means of achieving it. All we can do now is wait and hope everything works out, Crocker seemed to suggest.

Neither did Crocker address in any substantive way Iraq‘s economic and infrastructural crisis, preferring to gloss over severe, life-threatening problems with typical Washington bureaucratese: “Iraq‘s economy is performing significantly under potential.” With 4 million internally and externally displaced persons, 50% unemployment, and about 8 million Iraqis requiring emergency intervention, Iraq’s real life situation didn’t fit the White House’s rosy estimates.

The testimony offered by Petraeus and Crocker showed that the occupation of Iraq has not produced positive results. Indeed, the humanitarian crisis has deepened and sectarian conflict has not been resolved. It is becoming even clearer, as the Jones Commission report on Iraq‘s Security Forces released earlier last week showed, it is the occupation itself that lies at the heart of this failure to progress. The Bush administration presented no new plan to change this reality, only lots of spin to try to deny it.

And because the Bush administration refuses to take definitive steps to change its policies, Congress, as a co-equal branch of government, must step forward and assume the mantle of change. It must mandate a new course that brings the troops home and ends the occupation of Iraq.

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