By DJ Elliott, CJ Radin and Bill Roggio
The surge is failing, according to the New York Times. The U.S. has fallen short of securing Baghdad by July, and the Iraq security forces have been hopelessly infiltrated by Shiia militias. The Times‘s conclusion is based on a one-page memo. The memo, actually a status update on the situation in Baghdad, was never intended to serve as a full report on the progress of the Baghdad Security Plan. But that didn’t stop the New York Times from characterizing the memo as such.
The article’s entire premise seems to be the statement of a single, unnamed senior American military officer, who claims the architects of the Baghdad Security Plan “assumed most Baghdad neighborhoods would be under control around July… so the emphasis could shift into restoring services and rebuilding the neighborhoods as the summer progressed.” As Fredrick Kagan has noted in THE DAILY STANDARD, this rosy assessment was made by General Casey, the outgoing commander of Multinational Forces Iraq. But the current military leadership in Baghdad has never made this claim.
I contacted General David Petraeus yesterday and asked him if July was a realistic target date to secure Baghdad. “I’ve never assumed we’d have Baghdad under control by July,” he stated. He also reiterated something he has been saying since January: that it would be late summer before he and his commanders had a sense of how the surge was progressing.
The Times goes on to report, “The American assessment, completed in late May, found that American and Iraqi forces were able to ‘protect the population’ and ‘maintain physical influence over’ only 146 of the 457 Baghdad neighborhoods.” But it is unclear exactly what the Times means by “neighborhoods,” since Baghdad only has 89 neighborhoods that are referred to as such. Still the overall percentages are not in dispute. Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Garver confirmed earlier today that less than a third of Baghdad can be considered “secure.”
However, the context for this data in the Times article is misleading.
“In the remaining 311 neighborhoods, troops have either not begun operations aimed at rooting out insurgents or still face ‘resistance,'” the Times notes. Of the 331 remaining “neighborhoods,” the Times does not tell us which have a U.S. or Iraqi presence, how many have been the focus of clearing operations, the number in which security is marginal, the number in which security forces are altogether absent, or the intensity of the “resistance” where it is found.
In the proper context, that news that “less than one-third of Baghdad is secured” hardly suggests the surge is so far an abject failure. According to the military, a secure area is one where security is considered tight and where reconstruction is moving forward. This is a high-threshold definition. And saying that two-thirds of the city are less than “secure” doesn’t tell the rest of the story.
The first three months of the surge involved moving five additional combat brigades into the city and the outlying belts, from which al Qaeda is launching its attacks into the city. The final brigade is still moving into position, and the other four are just now adapting to the situation on the ground.
The Times article then mentions problems in western Baghdad, particularly the Rashid district. Western Baghdad is one of the most hotly contested areas of the city. It is an area where Moktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army has battled al Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni insurgent groups for control. U.S. and Iraqi forces have just begun clearing operations in that region. In one western neighborhood, Amiriyah, local residents, backed by Sunni insurgent groups, a team from the Anbar Salvation Council, and U.S. forces, began their own clearing operation to eject al Qaeda from the area.
The Times also hones in on the problem of infiltration in Iraqi Army and Police units, but neglects to account for the difficulty of developing security forces in the midst of a brutal, complex insurgency. In an interview last week, Lieutenant General Martin E. Dempsey, the Commander of Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, which is responsible for developing, organizing, training, equipping, and sustaining the Iraqi Security Forces, acknowledged the deficiencies of the Iraqi forces, particularly the police, and further stated that the development of the security forces is hampered by the violence.
“[The] places where the Iraqi Security Forces are less developed and less ready to do things on their own are the places most heavily contested,” LTG Dempsey said. “It is not really a surprise to us. Those places where the security situation is more stable, [the Iraqi Security Forces] actually have time to train and develop. In the most contested parts of Iraq, the Iraqi Army is challenged to conduct day-to-day operations with a very high tempo and very high threat conditions.”
The pairing of Iraqi Army and police units with U.S. forces has helped weed out many compromised and incompetent individuals. Seven of 9 National Police Brigade commanders and 14 of 25 battalion commanders have been relieved of command.
The leaked memo on the status of the Baghdad Security Plan is reminiscent of the report on the status of Anbar province that was leaked to the Washington Post in the fall of 2006. “The U.S. military is no longer able to defeat a bloody insurgency in western Iraq or counter al Qaeda’s rising popularity there, according to newly disclosed details from a classified Marine Corps intelligence report that set off debate in recent months about the military’s mission in Anbar province,” the Washington Post reported. In other words, Anbar province was hopelessly lost.
Anbar province was hotly contested at the time. Al Qaeda was on the rise and a political solution seemed beyond reach. But the Post failed to note the rise of the Anbar Salvation Council. Last November, I warned that it was too soon to judge the situation in Anbar. Six months later, the security situation in huge swaths of Anbar province, including Ramadi, once the most violent city in Iraq, had seen a dramatic turnaround. And now the Anbar counterinsurgency is cited as a model success story.
In an interview last week, LTG Odierno explained why it’s difficult to judge progress in the midst of a complex counterinsurgency operation. “Now, I explain to my commanders and my soldiers when I talk to them, it’s kind of like a teeter-totter; you work your way up the teeter-totter, and when you go past the tipping point, it happens very quickly, and we’ve seen that out in Anbar. We’re still going up that teeter-totter, and I’m not sure how long it’s going to take us to get to that tipping point or if I believe or assess that we can’t get to that tipping point.”
Baghdad is certainly a far more complex battlespace than the sparsely populated Anbar province. Over 25 percent of the Iraqi population is in Baghdad and the outlying provinces. And while Anbar is overwhelmingly Sunni, which insulated it from much of the sectarian violence, Baghdad is a cauldron of Sunni, Shia, Kurd, and other ethnic groups. Also the tribal dynamics at play in Baghdad are weaker than in Anbar, while the city itself presents a more challenging terrain for counterinsurgency operations.
But the Anbar lesson remains. Judgment on the progress or failure on the Baghdad Security Plan, which is a little over three months old, shouldn’t be passed during its opening phase. The Postwas dead wrong about Anbar. Let’s hope the Times story comes out the same way.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.