The war in Iraq is going badly. That’s what the news media tell us. That’s what the Iraq Study Group said in its “bipartisan” report. Even former Senator John Edwards, who just threw his hat into the ring for President after falling into political obscurity after the 2004 election, and Democratic upstart and Presidential hopeful Barack Obama, have told us that now is the time to get out before it gets any worse. But what are our military commanders and soldiers in Iraq saying?
Most of the reports I have read, both in the mainstream media and in some nontraditional media, have all said the same thing: our commanders and soldiers say that we are making progress, but we need more time. Over the past three years, the men and women that we as a nation have trained, schooled, and selected to lead our military forces have been implementing a strategy in Iraq that is centered on training Iraqi military and police forces to take over responsibility for the security of their country.
Progress has been slow, to be sure, but progress is being made nonetheless. The situation in Iraq requires more time to establish capable security forces than may be the case in other countries because the society is so fractured along sectarian lines that deep suspicions held for generations must be overcome. The Iraqi Army and Police forces have struggled to find Iraqis committed to securing the nation more than securing the future of their particular militia or sect. Each day more and more Iraqis step forward to join the security forces. And each day Iraqis committed to fighting the insurgency are replacing those identified as contributors to the violence.
The two men principally responsible for the past few years in Iraq, Generals Abizaid and Casey, have both called for patience and resolve as more Iraqi units take the lead in security operations, with U.S. forces immediately on hand to help out, and as Iraqi units demonstrate the ability to operate independently, at which point they are handed responsibility for one of Iraq’s eighteen provinces.
As President Bush crafts his new direction for Iraq, a strategy to be announced after the New Year, coalition forces in the war-torn country continue to transfer responsibility for security to Iraqi forces. On December 20, Iraqis assumed control of security operations in An Najaf Province, the third such province this year to be released from coalition control. Previously, Iraqis took over operations in Al Muthanna Province on July 14 and in Dhi Qar Province on September 21.
Critics will claim that these three provinces were relatively peaceful to begin with and are not an indication of the ability of Iraqi forces to combat a brutal insurgency. This is absolutely true, but you have to start somewhere. Fledgling forces need to be built up, trained, and given enough experience to secure confidence in their abilities before being thrown into the fire. Attempting to hand over Baghdad or the volatile Al-Anbar Province at the outset of security transfer operations would doom the entire effort to failure. Such a move would just make no sense at all. There is a deliberate process and that process takes time.
The decision to hand over security operations to Iraqi forces is based on four criteria: the level of the threat, the competence of Iraqi security forces in a given province, the ability of the provincial government to manage security operations, and the ability of coalition forces to reinforce the Iraqi troops if necessary. Our military commanders, in consultation with Iraqi authorities, apply these criteria to Iraq’s provinces and then make decisions about how best to proceed. The process takes time and is made even more difficult because simultaneous operations against terrorists and insurgents must also be conducted.
I don’t pretend to know whether or not this strategy will work, and I dare not hazard a guess. What I believe, though, is that our military leaders are this nation’s subject matter experts when it comes to fighting and winning America’s wars. What I believe is that they would not keep our country’s sons and daughters in harm’s way unless they thought their strategy would work. While we eagerly study the Baker-Hamilton report, and examine Senator Biden’s Plan for Iraq, and entertain Senator McCain’s calls for more troops to be deployed, we should take just a minute or two to stop and listen to what our military leaders are telling us. Maybe then the President can truly examine all of our options and make a decision that is not based on public sentiment or political liability, but on the national security interests of the United States.