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“We Just Might Win”

Posted by Richard on July 30, 2007

Today's New York Times contains a remarkable op-ed column by Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack of the liberal Brookings Institution. The pair — who, according to Blackfive, had previously argued "against the continuation of our presence in Iraq" — recently returned from an eight-day tour of the country, and the trip changed their assessment considerably:

Here is the most important thing Americans need to understand: We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms. As two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration's miserable handling of Iraq, we were surprised by the gains we saw and the potential to produce not necessarily "victory" but a sustainable stability that both we and the Iraqis could live with.

Today, morale is high. The soldiers and marines told us they feel that they now have a superb commander in Gen. David Petraeus; they are confident in his strategy, they see real results, and they feel now they have the numbers needed to make a real difference.

Everywhere, Army and Marine units were focused on securing the Iraqi population, working with Iraqi security units, creating new political and economic arrangements at the local level and providing basic services – electricity, fuel, clean water and sanitation – to the people. Yet in each place, operations had been appropriately tailored to the specific needs of the community. As a result, civilian fatality rates are down roughly a third since the surge began – though they remain very high, underscoring how much more still needs to be done.

In Ramadi, for example, we talked with an outstanding Marine captain whose company was living in harmony in a complex with a (largely Sunni) Iraqi police company and a (largely Shiite) Iraqi Army unit. He and his men had built an Arab-style living room, where he met with the local Sunni sheiks – all formerly allies of Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups – who were now competing to secure his friendship.

In Baghdad's Ghazaliya neighborhood, which has seen some of the worst sectarian combat, we walked a street slowly coming back to life with stores and shoppers. …

We traveled to the northern cities of Tal Afar and Mosul. This is an ethnically rich area, with large numbers of Sunni Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens. American troop levels in both cities now number only in the hundreds because the Iraqis have stepped up to the plate. Reliable police officers man the checkpoints in the cities, while Iraqi Army troops cover the countryside. A local mayor told us his greatest fear was an overly rapid American departure from Iraq. …

It's not just the Petraeus plan and the additional combat troops that have made the difference, though. The situation has been slowly but surely improving (with ups and downs, of course) for quite some time. One reason is that the prospect of living in a medieval caliphate focuses the mind, causing more and more Iraqis to decide that a pluralistic society with American soldiers hanging around is far better than the alternative:

In war, sometimes it's important to pick the right adversary, and in Iraq we seem to have done so. A major factor in the sudden change in American fortunes has been the outpouring of popular animus against Al Qaeda and other Salafist groups, as well as (to a lesser extent) against Moktada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.

These groups have tried to impose Shariah law, brutalized average Iraqis to keep them in line, killed important local leaders and seized young women to marry off to their loyalists. The result has been that in the last six months Iraqis have begun to turn on the extremists and turn to the Americans for security and help. The most important and best-known example of this is in Anbar Province, which in less than six months has gone from the worst part of Iraq to the best (outside the Kurdish areas). Today the Sunni sheiks there are close to crippling Al Qaeda and its Salafist allies. Just a few months ago, American marines were fighting for every yard of Ramadi; last week we strolled down its streets without body armor.

This comes as no surprise to you if you've been reading Michael Yon, as I've strongly suggested. Or Austin Bay, or Bill Roggio, or Michael Totten, or various and sundry Milbloggers. And despite what O'Hanlon and Pollack claim, I don't think it's happened suddenly in the last few weeks or months. Maybe Iraq reached a tipping point in recent weeks, but the tide was gradually turning against the jihadists long before that.

The sudden change that's surprising, actually, is that there've been several positive reports like this one in the mainstream media in the last few weeks. After two years of unrelenting negativity, of endless talk of quagmire, civil war, and Vietnam comparisons, of contemptuous dismissal of anyone and anything that contradicted or questioned the prevailing wisdom, why are some journalists suddenly seeing signs of hope and evidence of improvement where yesterday they saw none? Maybe they were blind to everything that didn't fit their narrative until the contrary evidence reached some critical mass. Now, as conscientious journalists, they can no longer ignore it. Yeah, maybe that's it.

If you're inclined toward a more cynical interpretation, how about this one: The media effort to Vietnamize Iraq has served its two main purposes, crippling the Bush administration and giving Congress back to the Democrats. Now it's time to drop or downplay it so the Democrats don't go into the election defined by their KosKids/MoveOn/nutroots wing and lose the presidency in a McGovern-like rout. I wouldn't be surprised if the Clinton machine had something to do with it.

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