General Petraeus’ Progress Report Fails Flat

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General Petraeus’ Progress Report Fails Flat

Seven months after the “surge” of 21,000 more U.S. troops to Iraq, the security situation is too “fragile and reversible” to allow for a drawdown of the 140,000 combat forces that will remain there in July. That was the key point made by Army General David Petraeus to lawmakers, some of whom were skeptical of the open-ended American commitment toward the war-torn country.The same general who sold the Army surge to a skeptical American public last September now recommends a 45-day freeze on any withdrawal of U.S. troops after July. He did not even commit himself to a timetable for resuming troop reduction after the 45-day freeze.

Bluntly put, Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker had little good news to deliver. The Iraq war continues; so does the preponderant U.S. military presence. Despite references to progress being made, according to Petraeus’s own words, the political and security environment “remains exceedingly complex and challenging.”

What are we to make of Petraeus’s report to Congress? Little appears to have strategically changed in Iraq if we keep in mind that the “surge” is a tactic, not a strategy. While security has slightly improved in the last few months, there has been no major progress on the political and sectarian fronts.

Multiple fault lines have resurfaced and threaten to wreck the very foundation of the new Iraq. The divide between Sunni and Shia factions is potent and simmering. The sectarian-dominated central government has resisted efforts by the U.S. to give the Sunni Arab community a greater role in the political-economic process. Many Sunni Arabs whom I recently interviewed expressed their anger and frustration with the Maliki government. They made it clear that there are limits to their patience, and that they might rethink the current truce with Maliki.

American military officers on the ground in Iraq are anxious about mounting tensions between the central government and the Sunni Arab community. The U.S. armed and funded almost 100,000 Sunnis in the so-called “Awakening Councils” in order to expel Al Qaeda in Iraq from their neighborhoods. Now U.S. officials fear that unless these militiamen are integrated into the Iraq security and public sphere, they could turn their guns against the central authorities and American troops as well. There is a gathering storm on the Sunni front that has mostly escaped the attention of outside observers.

An equally alarming development is the breakout of Shia civil war. Intra-Shia hostilities have been brewing for a while but were kept under control. Last month, the first shot in the Shia civil war was fired in the southern city of Basra, Iraq’s second largest city and its economic and oil pipeline, when Maliki put his reputation on the line and launched an all-out offensive against what he called “criminal gangs.”

At that time Iraq and U.S. officials insisted that the fight was not aimed against the radical nationalist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadar, but against splinter gangs within his militia—the Mahdi army. But hostilities swiftly escalated and soon they engulfed most of the Shia south and Baghdad. Militiamen of the Mahdi army pounded the U.S.-controlled Green Zone with rockets and mortars, causing American and Iraqi casualties.

Under questioning by lawmakers, General Petraeus did describe the disappointing performance of some of the Iraqi forces sent last month to defeat the Shia militias in Basra. The offensive, said Petraeus, “could have been better planned” by the Iraqis. But Petraeus’s concession downplays what has been lost in the Basra offensive.

At the onset of hostilities in Basra, President Bush publicly supported Maliki’s crackdown, praising him as a “bold” leader and stating that the government offensive was a defining moment in Iraq’s history. The U.S. Department of Defense noted that the fighting was a positive development because it indicated that the Iraq government was going after criminals and thugs. There was no hint or sign of skepticism and reflection. There should have been. Five days after the outbreak of hostilities in Basra, a ceasefire agreement brokered by Iran was reached between warring Shia leaders in the Iranian holy city, Qom. The crisis showed clearly that Iran, not the United States, is the most influential player in Iraq today.

Indeed, Iran has emerged as a pivotal factor in the Iraq equation, not because its paramilitary cells fund and train Shia militias, as Petraeus asserted, but because Iran has co-opted most of the Shia political groups and communities, including Sadar, who initially opposed Iranian influence in his country. It is now doubtful if Iraq can be stabilized without politically engaging its powerful Iranian neighbor.

In addition, the intra-Shia fighting in Basra exposes the lack of strategic planning by the Bush administration. Bush and senior aides should have been cautious and careful about publicly making exaggerated claims about the prowess of the Maliki government. They should have known that Shia militias were battling over political supremacy and economic spoils. This was not a fight between the Iraqi government and a bunch of criminals; rather, it was an intra-Shia armed struggle involving multiple factions and militias.

The U.S.-trained Iraq army performed dismally. According to credible reports, almost 40 percent of government troops abandoned the fight before a ceasefire was reached. Many soldiers and officers defected to warring militias. The devastating performance of the Iraq security forces has been a setback for U.S. military commanders and certainly is one reason why General Petraeus recommended a suspension of troop withdrawals after July.

U.S. officials should have known better than to take sides in this bloody and raging Shia civil war lest they become bogged down and entangled further in Iraq’s shifting sands. The U.S. has already made many enemies, and while the U.S. blunders, Iran has more leeway to extend its influence in Iraq and the Middle East.

The bottom line is that the U.S. is at the mercy of local Iraq players in the same way that Britain was in the 1920s. Desperate to make headway, U.S. officials portray every skirmish and battle as a turning point, and then backtrack when it is followed by a reversal. No wonder the U.S. public has lost faith in the war—and in those officials who council more patience!

The question is when the now popular General David Petraeus will also fall out of favor. His latest progress report offers only the dismal prospect of war without end.

Fawaz A. Gerges is a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). He is also a professor of Middle Eastern politics and international relations at the London School of Economics. His forthcoming book is titled: The Making of the Modern Middle East, Public Affairs.

This article was originally published by the Foundation for the Study of Independent Social Ideas.

ISPU scholars are provided a space on our site to display a selection of op-eds. These were not necessarily commissioned by ISPU, nor is their presence on the site equal to an endorsement of the content. The opinions expressed are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ISPU.

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