Friday, July 13, 2007

Interim Progress in Iraq

With Washington abuzz over the mixed report card on Iraq, and President Bush's unbowed resolve, it's useful to evaluate how well things in Iraq are proceeding on the ground.

Michael O'Hanlon and Jason Campbell profide
a fairly unbiased assessment in today's Wall Street Journal. They note that a lot depends on how one evaluates the indicators: Different metrics can be intepreted in different ways, raising different questions:

Many of these questions are broad and murky enough that simple answers cannot be distilled from one or two quantitative metrics....Further complicating matters is that information is often unreliable. The recent Iraqi government claim that Iraqi civilian fatalities in June declined 36% relative to the previous baseline is suspect. If true, it would mean a significant and meaningful improvement--but is it really accurate, and if so, will the trend hold up through the summer?

We are probably condemned to an inconclusive debate come September. Supporters of the surge will look for promising trendlines and war critics will underscore the negative. Is there a way to make sense of the coming cacophony? Here are some simple suggestions, organized into the three subjects most widely recognized as crucial in counterinsurgency.
O'Hanlon and Campbell look at the three main areas, security, economics, and politics. All of these issue-areas show some halting improvements. In security, recent progress has not established a level of peace known back in 2003-2004 Iraq. And the economy can't really improve until security is achieved. That leaves a lot of pressure on the political timetable:

Results should be achievable in making political compromises that allow the process of healing to begin. That is, if Iraqis are willing to make the effort. There must be an actual deal to share oil revenues fairly across all provinces, and a similar agreement on reforming de-Baathification law so it does not punish lower-level former party members. There should be at least initial progress on devolving more resources to the provinces and allowing them to hold elections, on finding a fair way to deal with disputes around the mixed city of Kirkuk, and on purging ministries of militia extremists. The administration's recent claim that such developments cannot be expected soon, and are lagging rather than leading indicators of progress, is unconvincing. Without major progress on such matters soon, there is little hope for a reduction in sectarian tensions and thus little hope for the success of the overall strategy.
O'Hanlon's at the Brookings Institution, and he very evenhanded in his analysis. He writes a "State of Iraq" progress report every few months.

Yet, reports like his need to be augmented by additional sources. Omar Fadhil, who blogs at Iraq the Model, is a great source to counter the journalistic pessimism (see
his recent post on progress in Iraq during the surge, which provides upbeat analysis of Iraqi security forces, but is sober on political progress). Fadhil published a commentary in today's Wall Street Journal, noting that he's seen spectacular results in security cooperation, but is cautious on political change:

It would be unrealistic to expect political progress to take place along the same timeline as this military progress. The obvious reason is that Iraqi politics tend to be affected by developments on the battlefield. Anyone familiar with the basics of negotiations should understand this.

First things first. Let's allow our troops to finish their job. And when that is done nation-building will follow, and that's where diplomats and politicians will have to do the fighting in their own way while American soldiers can finally enjoy a well-deserved rest.

Backing off now is not an option. The light at the end of the tunnel faded for a whole dark year, but we can see it again now and its getting brighter. It's our duty to keep walking towards it.
I don't think that's a message the Democrats are willing to hear. At least there's hope on the field, and our Commander-in-Chief remains as resolute as ever.

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